Imagine citizens paying taxes to have local sanitation departments haul away tons of valuable material. Then those folks rush to garden stores and pay good money to replace that same valuable material. Unfortunately, that’s many of us. Especially during fall, we rake up leaves and pine straw as yard waste while planning to buy bagged mulch at the store later.
Mulch is gardener’s gold. It insulates soils and plants from losing moisture and holds down the weeds that germinate to compete with our plants. As it decomposes, organic mulch builds soil fertility by creating a healthy environment for earthworms and beneficial microbes, while it improves soil texture for better air and water circulation to plant roots. And a fresh layer of mulch neatens the garden’s appearance. So, this fall, consider nature’s own products for great potential mulch. Look at any forest floor carpeted with decaying leaves, pine straw, and plant debris from last autumn. Trees thrive, saplings take root and grow, and delightful wildflowers peek out from a layer of humus.
Rather than collecting our fall leaves or pine straw for disposal at curbside, we can recycle them into garden mulch. Pine straw is an easy mulch solution. Raked into a tarp or garden cart, it can be spread on beds and borders. The network of thin needles allows for moisture and air circulation. And pine needles are relatively slow to break down, so they don’t appreciably increase soil’s acidity. Best of all, their coppery color looks cozy and autumnal.
Fallen leaves are another great mulch source. Rake leaves into rows, and then run a lawnmower with a bag over them, chopping them into small pieces. You can spread the chopped leaves directly around trees, shrubs, flower beds. Or if you already have a nice layer of mulch, use this winter to create leaf mold by composting a bin or pile of chopped leaves. Next spring or summer, the processed leaf mold can supplement your mulch.
Bagless mowing over fallen leaves on your lawn creates excellent mulch for your turf. Mow frequently, based on leaf fall rather than grass length. The thin layer of finely chopped and re-chopped leaves will filter down to the soil and decompose to nourish your lawn. Of course, in spreading any mulch be sure not to pile it around tree and shrub trunks, as this creates the potential for pests and diseases to develop. For more great ideas on the value of NOT blowing your autumn leaves into a pile for waste disposal, check out the Leave Leaves Alone! website. These Bedford, NY, residents and Master Gardeners have seen the environmental problems caused by leaf blowing and tell us “Nature is there to do most of the work for us. Fall leaves are a great natural resource that should be valued.”
Written by: Vicki Kennedy, Extension Master Gardener volunteer