I look forward to autumn leaves — not only for their brilliance but for the many benefits they’ll bring to my garden.
I love leaves so much I do embarrassing things to get more of them. Under cover of darkness, I appropriate leaf bags neighbors deposit at the curb. When parkway maples drop their leaves, I collect them from the gutter. At the local dump, for several years I was regarded as the harmless but eccentric bag lady who accosted strangers saying, “Can I have those leaves?”
Bags of leaves make me feel indescribably wealthy. I can’t get enough of them. This winter, those leaves will help insulate my plants. Come spring, they’ll keep weeds from germinating in the garden. In summer, they’ll help hold moisture in the soil while keeping it cooler. Where else can you get that much assistance … for free?
To get the most benefit from leaves, I mow them several times to shred them. If you use whole leaves in the fall for winter protection, they can turn into sodden mats when the snow melts in spring. You have to remove whole leaves from the garden in spring to avoid suffocating emerging plants.
Nestle your plants in a fluffy 4-5-inch comforter of shredded leaves in fall, though, and you’re good to go for a whole year. The smaller pieces settle around plants — not over them — and leave air pockets so plants can breathe.
Smaller pieces also decompose faster, and that’s a good thing. As the leaves decompose during the next growing season, they’re creating organic matter that can be incorporated into the soil as you plant. Mother Nature will even help mix the organic matter in during the freeze-thaw cycles the following winter. By the time your leaf mulch has decomposed, it’s fall, and there’s a new supply of fallen leaves again.
As wonderful as shredded leaves are, there can be some downsides. Jumping worms are a new garden menace. They have been reported in Iowa and Sauk counties and are a garden scourge in Dane County. These voracious worms eat all the organic matter from the soil, turning it to the consistency of coffee grounds and destroying its water-holding properties. Their microscopic eggs can be raked up in leaves. That’s how they became so widely distributed around Madison a few years ago. I no longer visit the dump for leaves. Instead, I use leaves from our property and others where I’m reasonably sure no jumping worms live. For more information on jumping worms, visit the DNR website: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/invasives/documents/JumpingWormFactSheet.pdf
Be a little careful, too, about using leaves from trees that are diseased. That can spread diseases that may or may not affect your garden. Incorporating clippings from grass that’s been treated with weed killer also has the potential to adversely affect garden plants.
Harnessing nature’s bounty as a year-round garden helper is my idea of a great bargain. If it requires a bit of caution, well that’s what puts the blitz in bliss.