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Gardening Basics: Save Those Leaves!

Gardening Basics: Simply Put, Save Those Leaves!

fall-leavesBefore your rake all of the rest of the leaves to the curb, consider a compost pile. People become obsessed with composting, with bins, thermometers, turning the pile, adding this and that…but, if you have other things to worry about, you can still turn your leaf pile into “garden gold”.

Find a place off in a corner someplace, where your leaf pile won’t be an eyesore, and it won’t blow away. Rake or dump your leaves into a pile; ignore it until the end of next summer. The leaves at the top of the pile will still be there, but underneath that surface of leaves, various agents of decay will turn your leaves into compost. Your four foot pile of leaves will drop down to 6 inches or so of compost, which can be worked into the soil in your garden to improve the soil quality.

You will get faster decay if you turn the pile with a turning fork–it lets air into the pile, which helps in decomposition. A moist compost pile will decompose faster than a dry one, so you might spritz some water on it in times of drought.

If you bag your grass clippings instead of letting them decompose naturally on your lawn, and if they aren’t full of some herbicide that you or the lawn service applied recently, then dump them on the pile, too. (This is beginning to sound like stone soup.) You can add kitchen scraps (no meat) if you want to; things like old lettuce, asparagus bottoms, coffee grounds, stuff like that.

But, really, you don’t have to do any of that. Even if you just put the leaves in a pile and ignore it for 9 months or a year, the leaf pile will decay to a low pile of black compost. It saves you the cost of buying bagged compost, and it saves the cost of the city/county having to scoop your leaf piles out of the street.

Note: If you are pulling “sick” plants or weeds out of your garden, this “cold” style of composting doesn’t generate enough heat to kill the weed seeds or the fungi/bacteria that are infecting your plants, so don’t add them out of the leaf pile.

I can’t say it’s fun, but it’s no harder than hauling all of those leaves to the curb. For a downloadable brochure on composting, from the immensely helpful University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center, go to: http://extension.umd.edu/hgic

By Larry Hurley, Perennials Specialist

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