I attended a panel discussion by four Master Gardeners this week and listened to their take on the fall tuck in.

...Mother Nature's fluffy blanket (photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/rfduck/3005808959/

It’s so primal – the urge to tuck in one’s garden beds under a leafy blanket as winter looms.  I see a lot of similarity between the down comforter I curl up under and the blanket of leaves I spread over the ground.

Every gardener has his or her own mulch madness.

Linda Brazil, garden writer and blogger (check her blog Each Little World ) does some fall mulching with her own leaves and also with leaf mulch she gets from Olbrich Botanical Gardens .  When she wants to store some for spring, she uses Husky Contractor Clean Up Bags.  They cost a little more but can be reused many seasons.  “Make sure the leaves go in dry,” she said.

...Brown gold.

Lisa Johnson, Dane county UW Extension Horticulture Educator (and my Master Gardener Volunteer teacher – thank you, Lisa!) says she beds everything in with leaf for the winter, then rakes it up and composts it in the spring.

Ann Munson, a seasoned Dane County Master Gardener, says her favorite fall soil enricher is the muck she cleans out of the bottom of her fish pond each year at this time.

Tibi Light, garden designer,  said that this year she is really getting a strong urge to bed everything in deep.  Her own yard is too small to provide all the leaf she needs, “So I go along city streets and collect bags of leaves from the curb,” she said.”  She is looking for maple leaves.  “Maple leaves are high in sugar,” she added.  “They are like worm candy.”

..Who is throwing away all this wonderfullness?

Maple leaves are also high in calcium and potassium, and break down easily. Oak leaves are beneficial to acid-loving plants, even though the composting process neutralizes the acidic nature, according to Ron Calhoun Michigan State University turf expert.

Conifer needles are another great mulch for acid-loving plants, such as rhododendrons, blueberries and strawberries. It is best to avoid cedar leaves; they have been shown to prevent the germination and growth of plants around them.  And watch out for black walnut leaves.  Black walnut is toxic to many other plants.  Check out the details here.

It has always amazed me to see people bag their beautiful, valuable leaves and throw them away.

When I lived on a quarter acre that was 100 percent deeply shaded by oak canopy, I couldn’t really grow much of a garden, but I came to view the fall leaves as my harvest.  I loved raking them up, listening to their whispery rattle, breathing in their earthy richness.  Knowing they would be going back into the soil and giving it that fiber and microbial punch up that is the signature of good soil.

...My neighbor's maple. Some of this bounty will fall to me!

Doug and I rake up our leaves onto a big plastic tarp, haul them all to the back yard where we have our leaf shredder, Ollie.  Ollie chews them up and spits them out as tiny bits.  Then we spread it out like a lovely blanket.  Any left over becomes the beginning of the winter compost pile.

Trees and shrubs thrive under a layer 3 to 6 inches deep.  Annual flower beds benefit from a 2- to 3-inch blanket.  In the veggie garden, a thick layer of mulch between rows, improves the soil, keeps down weeds and keeps mud off your shoes when it is wet out.

I again live under a pretty full canopy of oak branches, and get a good harvest of leaf for which I am very grateful.  I love to shred those tough, brown leaves – each as different from each other as snow flakes are – into the springy, earthy substance that makes such a wonderful quilt for the winter, and then fresh, fibrous soil enhancer in the spring.

4 replies

  1. I agree that oak leaves are lovely with their russet browns in the fall and thru the winter. But maple leaves are the flashy ones with their bright hues of yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. A botanist friend (retired university prof who probably knows as much about the plants of Wisc as anyone in the state – the guy is just amazing) told me several years ago that maple leaves are by far much better for mulching and composting than oak leaves.

    The maples reach down farther and bring up much more nutrients than do oak leaves. And their leaves break down and decompose so much more easily and faster. Much more than “worm candy”.

    Now I rejoiced when we moved from the city to the country 10 years ago, and I swore never again would I rake leaves: ain’t no neighbors around to care. But then I became a gardener and learned of the virtues of maple leaves. Now I’m happily raking leaves from under our 4 maple trees, and then I go rake up the maple leaves from along a short roadside into Dewey Marsh. “There’s gold in them thar leaves, black gold, I tell ya!” So now I’m raking more leaves and cheerfully so than ever I did in the city. Great mulch and good, nutritious compost.

    • Hey, Dennis!
      I requested the book you recommended recently, Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan. It came in today. I have only had time to read the flap, and it is now my next read. Thanks so much for the suggestion.
      As to oaks versus maples. I know that oaks break down slowly and are probably not as good a mulch as maples, but at the moment they are what I have. I spent 5 years living under an oak canopy in Indiana an d have now been 7 years under the venerable oaks in my Madison neighborhood. Our land also has a lot of oaks, but as the oaks are going down like slow motion dominoes to oak wilt, I suspect we are going to be learning about the properties of other trees as time goes on. For 12 years in between Indiana and Madison, we lived in a yard with a variety of trees, and those were actually my favorite to rake. It was like looking through a kalaidascope to watch all those colors and textures swirl in the leaf pile.
      I totally agree that leaves are like a form of gold. I feel rich when they mound up around my ankles. The smell, the sound, the texture!
      What a great season.

  2. Oak wilt – I wonder, is the increasing prevalence of it a function of climate change? What do you know? Oak woods is mostly what we have around here. Right now my driveway is covered with white and red oak leaves. I can’t put off raking too much longer!

    By the way, wasn’t Heidi Cullen on the TV Weather Channel and then got fired because she speaking up too much about climate change? Which the channel owner thought a lot of nonsense, turned out he was in Sen. Inhofe’s corner? Anyway I’m going to get her book later this week. Thanks for recommending it.

    • That’s a good question about oak wilt and climate change. I don’t know the answer, but I will try to find out. There are people at UW-Madison working it.
      Based on what I do know in general — a lot of plant pests and diseases that haven’t been too bad in Wisconsin are going to be more and more of an issue because our cold winter nights that used to freeze them out are warming fast. The beetles that transport the wilt fungus from woods to woods may be feeling friskier in our slightly warmer weather.

      I think you are right about Cullen’s tv past.


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