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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 March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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