Everyday Gardener: Leaves, leaves and more leaves

This summer’s storms cost our neighbor a beautiful oak tree that was well over a hundred years old. Now, all they’ve got to remind them of it is a huge rotting stump in their backyard that stinks like vinegar crossed with something sickeningly sweet. They miss the tree and we miss it, too, because once it was gone we realized how our back patio now boasts a majestic view of crisscrossing power lines. I want to plant a tree near our garage to remedy the situation and my husband, Mike, agrees that’s a good idea. As long as we get one that doesn’t have any leaves.

You see, he hates to rake and, though I am not a candidate for any kind of Green Girl moniker, so far I just won’t budge on the leaf blower issue. We can’t buy one. Not even an electric one. And it’s not as if he’s griping unnecessarily. We already have three big oak trees that blanket our yard with so many leaves we both rake until our hands blister and bleed every year. But here’s where my little do-no-harm-to-the-world-by-raking plan goes awry. We bag our leaves and haul them to the curb for pick-up.

Sure, yard waste is composted, not landfilled like garbage. But what happens to it then? (If you know, please shoot me an e-mail and fill me in.) And the bags, well, they’ll be around for the cockroaches to enjoy when we’re all long gone.

Eager to justify, I mean buttress, my argument for a new tree (one with leaves), I’ve looked into things we could do with our leaves that would be more environmentally and garden-friendly. Having already tried putting them into a compost bin and turning them, along with everything else, with a pitchfork, I immediately nixed that idea. Too heavy. Too difficult. Takes too long to break down into usable compost. (Ignore me if this method works for you.)

Leaf shredding seems like the best idea. You can use a regular lawn mower for the job, but it will take more time and patience than if you bought yourself a good mulching mower. (Since this strategy involves buying a gadget at our house, I’d say that tree is a shoe-in.) You can rake leaves into piles and run the mower over them, creating far fewer leaves to bag. You can also shred the leaves right where they are on your lawn. Though it’s true that layers of unraked leaves will smother turf grass, shredded leaves will actually decompose, adding nutrients and organic matter to your grass.

Better still, skip the bags altogether and add the shredded leaves to your compost pile. They’ll be much easier to manage than whole leaves. You can also turn them into the soil in open spaces like your vegetable garden or annual flowerbeds. Over the winter, they’ll compost right into the dirt, which will improve soil structure, enabling it to better hold onto water and nutrients. Or, you can spread your newly shredded leaves directly into your garden and around trees and shrubs just as you would any other kind of mulch. Just remember, if you pile shredded leaves on top of tender perennials, you’ll need to brush those off into the garden once the weather starts to warm up in the spring.

As long as we’re on the subject of winter mulch, it’s always wise to mulch garden beds before winter. Contrary to popular belief, winter mulch isn’t there to keep the soil warm. It’s there to keep it frozen so your perennials won’t be killed by the cycles of freezing and thawing that occur with increasing frequency here in Minnesota, particularly during late fall and March and April. Wait until there have been two or three hard frosts before mulching. Then add wood chips to a depth of 3 to 4 inches wherever your mulch has thinned out during the summer. If you don’t use wood chips in your garden, you can mulch for the winter with marsh hay, which you can buy at lots of local garden centers. Just be aware that it’s a bit of a bear to clean up in April. And beware of straw, which is full of seeds that will sprout everywhere (I know because it happened to me a few years back) come spring.

If you’re looking for mulch that’s easy to remove in the spring, and you’re still on the fence about what to do with all your leaves, you can put those bags of leaves you raked up to good use in your garden. Fill the bags a little bit less than you normally would so they’ll flop down around plants rather than sit on top of them. No, they don’t look so great. But they definitely create that layer of insulation you’re looking for, and they’re much easier to remove come spring, too.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question
you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.