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Sacramento Leaf Season brings avalanche of garden gold

Beautiful on the tree, but gold on the ground: Leaves are a gift to gardeners. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Don't just rake and toss; fallen leaves make great mulch and compost

In the City of Trees, October is either a time of dread or opportunity. It's Sacramento Leaf Season.

Every puff of breeze brings down more leaves as our urban forest sheds its foliage. While evergreens keep their needles, deciduous trees such as birches, sycamores and elms seem to rain down golden leaves.

That fall foliage looks pretty up on its branches. Off the tree, it's a mess.

Instead of an avalanche of green waste, think of it as garden gold. Smaller leaves make excellent mulch; just rake and place 2 to 3 inches deep around trees and shrubs.

Smaller leaves can be used as mulch as is;
un the lawn mower over larger leaves first.
(Photo: Debbie Arrington)
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.

That's what nature does with its fallen leaves. They decompose around the trees, revitalizing the soil while protecting tree roots.

Bill Maynard, Sacramento's community garden coordinator, recommends using fallen leaves for making compost.
"Brown" ingredients are necessary to make good compost, Maynard explained. He uses the lasagna method of compost making, layering green materials such as freshly cut grass or spent vegetable plants with "browns," such as dried leaves. That helps create an environment for rapid breakdown of the bin's ingredients into usable compost.

"You need browns in compost," he said. "Those are usually dried leaves or straw bales." The leaves don't require a trip to the feed store.

Besides adding nutrients, the brown ingredients serve another important role.
"Always top the compost with a brown layer," Maynard said. "That keeps flies down."

Maynard sets aside bags of dried leaves for later use in spring when brown material is scarce. "You need brown material year round for composting," he said. "In the spring, you have lots of green but no brown. So, save some leaves."

Those heaps of leaves now represent future fertilizer and potential savings. Go ahead and fall!


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

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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