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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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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Nov. 27

Before the rain comes later in the week, take advantage of sunny, calm days:

* This may be your last chance this season for the first application of copper fungicide spray to peach and nectarine trees. Leaf curl, which shows up in the spring, is caused by a fungus that winters as spores on the limbs and around the tree in fallen leaves. Sprays are most effective now, but they need a few days of dry weather after application to really “stick.” If you haven’t yet, spray now.

* Rake and compost leaves, but dispose of any diseased plant material. For example, if peach and nectarine trees showed signs of leaf curl this year, clean up under trees and dispose of those leaves instead of composting.

* Make sure storm drains are clear of any debris.

* Give your azaleas, gardenias and camellias a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim chrysanthemums to 6 to 8 inches above the ground after they’re done blooming. Keep potted mums in their containers until next spring. Then, they can be planted in the ground, if desired, or repotted.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while dormant.

* Plant bulbs for spring bloom. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Other suggestions: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas.

* Seed wildflowers including California poppies.

* Also from seed, plant sweet pea, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons and other spring flowers.

* Plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from winter rains.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cool-season greens can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* If you decide to use a living Christmas tree this year, keep it outside in a sunny location until Christmas week. This reduces stress on the young tree.

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