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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 Feb. 5

Make the most of sunny days and get winter tasks done:

* This is the last chance to spray fruit trees before they bloom. Treat peach and nectarine trees with copper-based fungicide. Spray apricot trees at bud swell to prevent brown rot. Apply horticultural oil to control scale, mites and aphids on fruit trees soon after a rain. But remember: Oils need at least 24 hours to dry to be effective. Don’t spray during foggy weather or when rain is forecast.

* Feed spring-blooming shrubs and fall-planted perennials with slow-release fertilizer. Feed mature trees and shrubs after spring growth starts.

* Finish pruning roses and deciduous trees.

* Remove aphids from blooming bulbs with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap.

* Fertilize strawberries and asparagus.

* Transplant or direct-seed several flowers, including snapdragon, candytuft, lilies, astilbe, larkspur, Shasta and painted daisies, stocks, bleeding heart and coral bells.

* In the vegetable garden, plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers, and strawberry and rhubarb roots.

* Transplant cabbage and its close cousins – broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts – as well as lettuce (both loose leaf and head).

* Plant artichokes, asparagus and horseradish from root divisions.

* Plant potatoes from tubers and onions from sets (small bulbs). The onions will sprout quickly and can be used as green onions in March.

* From seed, plant beets, chard, lettuce, mustard, peas, radishes and turnips.

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