Leave Them Be: The Why And How Of Leaf Mulching
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Brian Cruey. This week he gives us a new perspective on all those leaves that need raking.
What do you do with fall leaves once they stop painting the hillsides and start accumulating on your lawn? After you rake them, do you put them out for the trash collector? Burn them? Throw them in the woods? Let me tell you something; If you are throwing away your leaves, you are basically burning money. Not only can you use leaves in your compost pile, but those piles of fall leaves can work for you in other ways, too.
Mulching your flowerbeds in the spring is one of the best things you can do for your garden and for yourself. Not only does it have multiple benefits for the health of your plants, but it also saves your back by reducing the amount of time you spend hunched over pulling weeds.
But mulch can be tricky. You want to get it down before weeds start to germinate in the spring. It can also be really expensive; if you have a decent-sized garden, you’ll often need more than what you can buy in bags at the nursery, and having it delivered by the cubic yard will usually involve additional fees. Spring is a time when I usually have a lot of projects going on and both time and money can be in short supply, leaving my best intentions for a well-mulched garden to fall to the wayside.
So last year I cut out the middleman and made my own mulch using leaves and pine needles that I raked up from my yard. It’s one of those things that is so simple, so obvious and so FREE that you wonder, why haven’t I done this before?? Try it and trust me, you’ll agree. Here’s what you do:
1. Rake your leaves. (Include pine needles too if you have them.)
2. Chop them up. Flat, uncut leaves will create layers that will retain moisture and prevent air from passing through, which is not what we want. There are a couple of different ways you can prevent this. I rake my leaves into a manageable area just thick enough for getting my mower over without causing it to stall out. Use your push mower or a riding mower – it doesn’t really matter. If you have a chipper or an electric leaf cutter, that will work just fine, too. Here’s another fun trick: Take a big plastic trash can and fill it about half way up with leaves, then use your weed whacker like an immersion blender chopping the leaves directly into the trash can. This process takes a little longer but works well if you don’t have a lot of material to deal with.
3. Add other debris and turn. This is optional. If you want to add wood chips or grass clippings, now is the time to do it. Mix it up well to avoid clumping.
4. Store and cover. If you have a mulch bin or other container, put your chopped debris in it and cover it with a tarp. I just mounded mine on the ground and covered it, which works just as well. The goal is to keep it dry and protected from the elements to keep it from decomposing too quickly. Here’s a tip: Instead of making one large pile, I made four smaller ones, each located by where I would eventually be applying the mulch in the spring so I wouldn’t have to wheelbarrow it all over the yard.
5. Spread the mulch. Once spring rolls around, apply a layer of leaf mulch that is two to four inches deep around the base of your plants and throughout your beds, being careful not to cover up your perennials.
Now sit back and use all of that time you would have spent pulling weeds to count all of the money you saved on mulch.