October 3, 2010

Maine Gardener: And here's a second opinion: Shred your leaves for the garden or the lawn

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

What are you going to do with all of those leaves?

Before September was out of its teens, I was already raking up acorns, being afraid that people would slip on them and file a lawsuit.

It makes me think the trees are going to produce a lot of leaves this year.

Now, Ray Routhier is writing about how to decorate your house with leaves. But believe me, even if you did arts and crafts with leaves from now until the snow flies, you aren't going to make a dent in the amount that falls on your lawn.

You have to pick them up and make them disappear.

And I know enough about composting to warn that if you pile up fallen leaves, you aren't going to have the proper mix for true compost.

Mark Hutchinson, an extension educator in Knox and Lincoln counties who specializes in compost, home horticulture and commercial agriculture, felt my pain when I called him. And I now know what I can do rather than taking them to the local dump -- er, recycling facility.

"If you take just leaves and put them in a pile and let them sit for a while, you will get what is called leaf mold," Hutchinson said. "That goes through a heating process but just not as much as for compost, and that is a good soil amendment."

If you actually want compost, you have to add a lot of green plants, animal manure or quite a bit of food scraps to bring in the nitrogen needed for actual composting.

Hutchinson has a method that gets rid of leaves without even making a pile for making leaf mold -- and it's especially effective with oak leaves, which stick together when they get wet.

"For my own personal use, I just shred them and toss them where we have a vegetable garden," he said. "I work them into the soil in the spring after they have broken down."

He uses a mulching mower and just bags the leaves in the first pass. My mower, for some reason, doesn't shred really well if I bag directly, so I go over the leaves once without the bag and then bag on the second run. (Those with good memories may note that I said I mow with an old-fashioned, human-powered push mower with a reel. For leaf season, I resort to power.)

Hutchinson said that with a good shredding mower, you could shred the leaves and leave them on the lawn, and they would disappear by spring.

I had two questions: Will the leaves turn the soil in the vegetable garden acidic, and will all of the acorns sprout into oak trees? Hutchinson discounted them both.

Yes, the leaves have tannic acid, but the weight of the leaves is so light compared to the soil that it won't make much difference in raising the acidity. And, yes, some of the acorns will sprout, but they only have to be pulled once. They don't stay in the soil and keep producing weeds.

The other garden waste that coincides with fallen leaves are perennials and used-up vegetables and vegetable foliage.

I asked Hutchinson about problems such as the mold that is growing on our squash leaves. No problem.

"The mold that you see on squash is here everywhere, so adding it to a compost pile is not a big issue," he said.

With tomatoes and potatoes that might have late blight, you want to be more careful.

While Hutchinson does shred some leaves, he composts others. He uses lobster-trap wire to enclose his compost area, including the leaves, and keeps adding food waste and kitchen scraps all winter long.

By spring, the compost is in pretty good shape.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

 

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