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Fallen leaves: Turn mess into mulch!

Brown foliage needed for compost, too

various brown leaves on concrete
With extra help from the strong winds recently, leaves are starting to accumulate.
Use them for mulch or compost. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

There’s a reason they call it “fall.”

Recent windy conditions brought down an avalanche of leaves in my yard – the first big dump of autumn. With every gust, more leaves rained down, coating the patio with a blanket of gold and brown.

I know I’m not the only one in the City of Trees with this annual dilemma: What to do with all those leaves?

Start by thinking like Mother Nature. It’s not a mess – it’s mulch!

Trees drop leaves, in part, to keep their roots cozy in winter. The fallen foliage also replenishes nutrients in the soil.

Dropped leaves on the patio aren’t doing my trees any good. But as mulch or compost, those cast-off leaves will benefit the trees and the rest of my garden, too.

Smaller leaves, such as birch, pistache or elm, make excellent mulch as is; just rake and place 2 to 3 inches deep around trees and shrubs.

Or chop larger leaves with a lawn mower (a couple of passes usually is sufficient) and use as mulch. It will last through the winter, keeping down weeds while retaining even soil moisture. Some waxy leaves, such as magnolia, may take several seasons to break down.

One note on turning fall foliage into mulch: Don’t use any diseased leaves. If the foliage is showing signs of mildew or other fungal disease or pests, discard it in the trash – not the green waste or your garden. Otherwise, you’re recycling problems along with the leaves.

Brown redwood needles
Fallen redwood needles can be used as mulch for azaleas
or camellias.
It’s not just deciduous trees dropping leaves right now. Coastal redwoods also are shedding a lot of browned needles.

Although they’re evergreens, coastal redwoods are susceptible to drought. Those browned needles are signs of stress. Consider having an arborist check the tree’s health.

Meanwhile, those browned needles make durable mulch, especially for acid-loving shrubs such as azaleas or camellias.

Add fall leaves to your compost pile, too. Plus save some for later.

Dried leaves are a necessary ingredient in compost. To promote rapid breakdown in compost, an even amount of “browns” (dried leaves, straw or other dry ingredients) are mixed with “greens,” such as freshly cut grass, spent vegetable plants or kitchen waste.

While dried leaves are plentiful now, come spring they’ll be in short supply. So, bag up some brown leaves to add to your compost pile in March or April to keep it “cooking.”


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Dig In: Garden Checklist for week of April 7

The warm wave coming this week will shift weeds into overdrive. Get to work!

* Weed, weed, weed! Whack them before they flower.

* Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and control weeds.

* Smell orange blossoms? Feed citrus trees with a low dose of balanced fertilizer (such as 10-10-10) during bloom to help set fruit. Keep an eye out for ants.

* Apply slow-release fertilizer to the lawn.

* Thoroughly clean debris from the bottom of outdoor ponds or fountains.

* Spring brings a flush of rapid growth, and that means your garden is really hungry. Feed shrubs and trees with a slow-release fertilizer. Or mulch with a 1-inch layer of compost.

* Azaleas and camellias looking a little yellow? If leaves are turning yellow between the veins, give them a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim dead flowers but not leaves from spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils and tulips. Those leaves gather energy to create next year's flowers. Also, give the bulbs a fertilizer boost after bloom.

* Pinch chrysanthemums back to 12 inches for fall flowers. Cut old stems to the ground.

* From seed, plant beans, beets, cantaloupes, carrots, corn, cucumbers, melons, radishes and squash. Plant onion sets.

* In the flower garden, plant seeds for asters, cosmos, celosia, marigolds, salvia, sunflowers and zinnias. Transplant petunias, zinnias, geraniums and other summer bloomers.

* Plant perennials and dahlia tubers for summer bloom. April is about the last chance to plant summer bulbs, such as gladiolus and tuberous begonias.

* Transplant lettuce and cabbage seedlings.

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