Oh, Those Wonderful Leaves! - 47 ABC - Delmarva's Choice

Oh, Those Wonderful Leaves!

Salisbury, MD.  "Oh, those wonderful leaves!"  Now there's a comment often limited to children as they scuff and tussle their way through piles of leaves that Mother Nature delivered and their parents are trying to cope with. 

Perhaps, often spoken by children, but the Gardening Grannies, who view leaves as composting gold, come in as a close second.  Leaves, along with pine needles and late season grass clippings, turn into the most wonderful compost by springtime.  The important thing, according to the Grannies, is that you take your time and deal with the leaves as you can.  Who cares if we're still cleaning up in February?  There is Christmas and children and grandchildren.  There are warm-ish days and those too cold and windy (as in this week) to bother.  By taking our time and choosing our days, we have saved ourselves from back strain, missed moments with gran'babies and chills … and made use of every one of those wonderful leaves.

The Grannies (well, most of them) pride themselves in not taking a single leaf or pine needle off property.  They turn them into mulch and/orcompost which, in the springtime, proves to be a huge timesaver.  The only caveat to mulching leaves is that, if you have a garden waste that is diseased and/or has weed seeds, put it out in the trash rather than risking contamination of your compost pile or mulching into your beds.

Granny Griffith, who lives in the woods near Salisbury, has her organic veggie patch in seventeen raised beds out behind her house.  Every fall, after the final cleanup, she has a routine.  She pulls out the last of the tomato vines and other spent annuals and adds them as green matter to the compost pile.  The soil level always seems to have dropped a bit in the raised beds at the end of the season, so Granny takes about a half wheelbarrow load of additional dirt out of the bed.  Then she takes her riding mower and pulverizes the leaves nearly to dust, empties the baggers and bags up the finely shredded leaves.  She adds several inches of this pulverized material to the 4 x 8 raised bed, replaces the soil and sprinkles a bit of left over organic fertilizer on top.  She then waters it in well and covers the bed with black plastic, tucking in the edges carefully.  When springtime comes, she just removes the black plastic, places the soaker hoses back on the bed (more about that in a later article) and she's all ready to go. 

Granny Griffith tells me that there seems to be enough warm-ish  days (and compensating hot flashes) over the winter to accomplish these chores and, in the springtime when everything is literally bursting out all over, it's nice to know that the beds are all ready for those seedlings. Granny Greenthumb, who used to live in the woods and now has to re-learn gardening techniques for full sun up near Elkton, has to make-do with having Grampie Greenthumb till in (she doesn't have raised beds) garden waste and whatever leaves they can pick up from neighbors.  They live close to a mushroom house and make up for not having leaves by bringing in pickup truck loads of mushroom soil in the spring.

So, what if you don't have a veggie garden, what are you supposed to do with all those leaves?  The Gardening Grannies suggest that, if you are like so many of us who garden in high sand content soils, you mow over the leaves until they are pulverized in the grassy areas.  Leave a thin layer of the chopped leaves in the grass to improve the quality of the  soil, and then, go back over the area with a bagger and pick up the excess with the mower.  Store the dried, chopped leaves in large trash bags in a discreet place until all (or most) of the leaves have fallen.  At which time you do two things:  1)  you call the guy to come clean out the gutters and 2) you rake the leaves from the beds out into the lawn and chop them up with the mower.  This time, when you bag them up, you put them back on the beds, along with the previously bagged and stored leaves.  The famous gardener, Jerry Baker, once suggested that you take a garden hose sprayer, put a can of cola (not diet) in it and spray over the leaves.  His theory, as the Grannies recall it, is that the stickiness in the cola will, among other things, keep the shredded leaves from blowing about.  The Grannies have been practicing organic gardening techniques for years and, while they think it is an idea which probably has merit, have never actually tried it.  Sometimes, they water the leaves in a bit with a sprinkler but their shredded leaves pretty much stay in place with or without the watering process.

Some random thoughts about leaves…..

  • Oak trees are a double edge sword.  The different varieties of oaks hold onto their leaves for different amounts of time into the winter….and beyond!  Some of them don't lose the last of their leaves until the emerging leaves push them off in the springtime.  This makes for an untidy yard (something you just have to get used to) and a frustrating and expensive time if the trees are close to the house and you pay to have your gutters cleaned.  On the positive side, grubs and certain other critters aren't fond of oak leaves.  When you mulch with oak leaves, the Grannies believe that you reduce the chances of problems from grubs later in the season.
  • Mulching over bulbs, depending on the thickness of the mulch, will reduce the likelihood of the ground "heaving" due to frosts but, on the other hand, it may also delay flowering by a few days. A thick mulch also tends to confuse the squirrels, a good thing if you happen to live in an infested area.  In addition, frequent freezing and thawing of the ground over the course of a winter, may cause problems with all sorts of plants and a thick mulch will reduce the likelihood of damage.
  • You can choose to leave your beds naked over the winter and apply your mulch in the springtime.  The Grannies know several gardeners who do this, but they do not recommend this particular practice.  They do caution, however, not to place mulch up against trunks of shrubs and trees as it can lead to insect and rot issues.
  • Chopped leaves and pine needles make a wonderfully nutrient-rich topping for your garden…. and they're free!  You don't need a special mower to mulch them.  Just mow until your bagger is full and chokes.  Then just keep mowing and let the shredded material fall back onto the lawn.  When it is chopped to your taste, empty the bagger and  mow the excess clippings back up and spread them where you will. 
  • Don't have enough leaves of your own?  Scout about some of the developments and pick up bags of leaves that the less educated public puts out with their trash.  It's only polite to ask permission and to inquire whether it is "clean" leaves or mixed with other trash.  After a few inquiries, you'll soon know where to go.

So….off your rockers, Grannies, and out into those leaf-laden gardens and yards!

The Gardening Grannies are a group of avid and Master Gardeners who live, love and garden on the Delmarva Peninsula.  You can reach us at gardeninggrannies@wmdt.com and we look forward to hearing from you.

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