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Turn fallen leaves into garden gold

Follow Nature's lead — it's time to start some compost piles

Brown and gold leaves on the ground
That's not litter. Those leaves are the building blocks for an excellent compost pile -- and they're free for the raking. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

This last week of fall really lived up to its name: Leaves fell everywhere!

Recent storms shook loose most of the foliage remaining on deciduous trees such as maples, pistache, sycamores and elms. Those leaves are now covering our sidewalks, patios, driveways, lawns and more.

What to do with that mess? Make garden gold. That’s what Nature does.

“A yard of fallen leaves may seem like a mess,” according to the Sierra Club. “But hidden in all that decomposing foliage is the perfect organic matter for a great pile of compost. So this year, instead of putting fall leaves in a garbage bag and sending them to the dump, put them to use.”

For composting newbies as well as longtime composters, the Sierra Club also offered these tips:

* Size matters — both in leaves and piles: The size of a leaf pile can make a big difference in how fast leaves decompose. Keep your leaf piles up to 3 feet square — 3 feet tall, wide and deep. That helps distribute the heat faster while keeping the pile easy to turn. Before adding to the pile, chop up larger leaves so they’ll break down faster. (A lawnmower works wonders for this task.)

* Choose a shady spot: The best place to site a pile is in a shaded area with good air flow and decent protection from rain or wind. If your pile gets too big, start another.

* Keep it fresh: Compost needs a mix of greens and browns for faster decomposition. Add freshly fallen leaves, vegetable and fruit peelings and grass clippings to your old brown leaves.

* Turn regularly: Once a week or so, take a shovel or pitchfork to turn (or mix) your compost. That aerates the pile and speeds the whole process.

Started now, your compost pile will turn those brown leaves to garden gold by mid-spring – just in time for tomato planting!

- Debbie Arrington


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For week of Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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