A Million Leaves a Leavin’

These native Cottonwood and Red-Twig Dogwood trees will soon be putting me to work…

It’s that time of year again when my hopes start to rise thinking the more mundane chores of gardening will soon diminish.  And then the sky starts to fall.  With many of us having yards blanketed by leafy litter this time of year, what’s the best way to deal with it all?   Do you leave it?  Bag and trash it?  Move it to your borders and garden beds?  Add it to the compost pile?

Successful gardening is a lot of trial and error as you discover what works best in your yard, region and for your purposes.  I learned that you should not assume all gardening and landscaping advice is widely applicable, even for the seemingly innocuous.  In certain areas of the country one method may be useful and in other areas it may deliver much different results or come with additional unwanted consequences.  Seek local advice.

Quite a few years back I was reading an article in a national gardening magazine about a California gardener who took a more natural approach to gardening.   She recommended just moving any fallen leaves to the nearby garden beds and borders so they could decompose back into the soil, feeding the nearby plants and temporarily acting as a mulch, keeping plants warmer over the winter time and also reducing weeds and heaving.  Yes, fuel the soil web, reduce weeding, less work…  I’m sold!  I didn’t mind so much that my borders weren’t that “clean” or clutter-free.  When spring came though I soon discovered why this may have worked better in California than here in the Pacific Northwest.  Slugs were in a surprising abundance that next year.  It turns out those leafy layers acted as great slug habitat, for cover and for laying their eggs in (which look like small pearls).  My young, evergreen Solomon’s Seal clumps (Disporopsis pernyi) did not stand a chance.  Even putting slug controls around these plants once I noticed was not enough to stop their onslaught, and the plants met their demise.  My hostas and false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) also suffered a bit, among some others.  If you happen to have a more slug-proof garden and want to go this route just be sure to rake away any leaves over your perennials before they sprout in spring to avoid any chance of disease being spread.

However, even with the unwanted company of all those goopy gastropods, this is still a method I use, I’ve just restricted this practice to one portion of our yard now, because for that particular area the pros seem to outweigh the cons.  It’s the area behind our house near the forest edge, which in spots is a seasonal wetland.  I’ve pulled out many of the invasive blackberries that were back there, but without new plants to replace them, and not enough money for mulching the whole area just yet, I’ve decided it would be best to leave the soil covered from fall ’til spring so the leaves can act as a mulch, protecting the integrity of the soil texture from the pounding rains.  Another big deciding factor for this was the birds.  There are lots of birds, including the American Robin, Varied Thrush, and Northern Flicker, that love to rummage through the leaves on the ground looking for insects or other goodies, even slugs, to eat.

Japanese Maple leaves and Lysimachia paridiformis

One leaf containment method I would recommend avoiding altogether is bagging the leaves up and throwing them in the trash can.  That’s removing them from the life cycle at the time when they are ready to give back.  I think we should garden more responsibly than that.  If you don’t yet have one, check with your local waste management company about getting a yard debris bin so they can compost the leaves for you, or compost them yourself, which is what I would recommend.  Being in a large pile the leaves will decompose faster than when they are spread throughout your garden beds anyways, then you can use the leaf mold, or compost, wherever needed.  Yes, you will most likely still attract slugs, but with more vertical piling the affected area will be less (Just remember, they’ll appreciate any moist, protected area, such as under wood or stones).  To make things easy I try to fit in one last mowing for the year after a lot of the leaves have fallen so I can add them and the grass clippings to the compost pile at the same time, if the weather is dry enough for my mower to handle this.  More on composting in a future post.

If you’re wanting to kill some sod to make room for new garden beds, piling the leaves where you want them should kill the grass in time for next spring (so don’t leave them on the lawn for long if you are not going for this same result).  If this is in a windy location though it may be a little tricky keeping them right where you want them.  If you have any bird netting from your berry bushes or fruit trees you can roll that over the leaves and secure the corners.

Also, keep in mind that certain plants can be killed, or poorly affected, if they are covered by leaves for too long (primarily low-growing evergreen or semi-evergreen plants), such as the common Scotch or Irish Moss, and, as happened in my own yard, some of our native sedges.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to make a gigantic leaf pile first for the kids or grandkids (or yourself) to play in.  Getting the kids involved in these chores is a win-win.

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