A gardener’s best friend: Perfectly sized leaves

Judith Adam

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When the trees shed their leaves, I get busy making use of the best soil conditioner a gardener could ever want — freshly fallen leaves.

Blue beech leaves don’t require shredding

Instead of composting leaves, I use them immediately by putting down a layer of fresh leaves two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) deep over exposed soil. I also dig in generous quantities anywhere I’m planting or need to improve soil performance. (Leaves also improve worm performance — it’s their favourite food.) I own a simple nylon filament leaf shredder, and for several years I used it to chop up the fallen bounty from two inherited Norway maples. But when the maples were removed to make way for house renovation, I planted beautiful new trees with leaves just the right size to use without shredding — thereby saving me a whole lot of time.

If you’re going to follow my no-shred technique, some leaves are more perfect than others. The best are three to five inches (8 to 13 cm) long, with oval, oblong, lanceolate or wedge-like shapes. These forms mix and meld into a cohesive blanket on top of soil and stay neatly in place, without over-size leaves sticking up, catching the wind and blowing about. The leaf mulch mix in my garden includes ‘Shademaster’ locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis, Zone 5), blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana, Zone 4), river birch (Betula nigra, Zone 4), serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, Zone 5), pyramidal oak (Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’, Zone 5), fern leaf beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, Zone 5), and coniferous tree needles and small cones from spruce, cedar, hemlock and pine. One unique material included in the mix is the long mid-ribs from locust leaves. They retain a slightly bowed form even underground, not quite laying flat, helping to prevent compaction and bring oxygen into the soil.

So here’s my leaf mulch drill: twice in autumn, I rake up big piles of fallen leaves and needles, and throw them into a lightweight plastic kiddy pool (that once contained my kiddies). I drag the pool around from area to area, distributing leaves in the beds and along the base of shrubs and hedges, using a rake to spread them over the soil. That’s it. My leaf shredder gathers dust in the garage, and I’m in the pool with some perfect leaves.

Squirrels as friends: keeping them in their place

Squirrels provide a lot of amusement in the garden, although I really don’t know what they’re doing there. But it’s fun to watch their tree-top antics and see them leap through winter snow drifts. Squirrels relish a healthy diet of nuts, seeds and bulbs, unfortunately putting any newly planted tulip bulbs on their menu. But I’ve successfully foiled their efforts with a simple tactic: I cover my tracks. Squirrels search the soil surface looking for places another squirrel has buried nuts. (But those are my bulbs!) After planting bulbs, I spray the area with a garden hose to erase my marks and make it muddy; then I place a generous pile of leaves over the spot. This works much better than bloodmeal or hot cayenne pepper. The squirrels hardly ever find my bulbs, and the leaves can stay there until the ground freezes; at this point I spread them out as mulch. Problem solved.

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7 thoughts on “A gardener’s best friend: Perfectly sized leaves”

  1. Thank you Judith for the list of small leaved trees.
    I’m trying a different mulching method with the leaves which are blown in from other gardens. My front garden is an open site so it catches everything. I spread the leaves on the beds but then I sprinkle soil over it to keep it down. I’m thinking that I’m emulating what happens in a forest and hope it will work. No space to run the lawn mower of them. We’ll see next year if I’m successful.

  2. Hi Judith,

    What about having SO many mulched leaves on the lawn, it smothers the grass! Can this happen or is there another reason the grass is slow to come up in the spring?

    Thanks! Gail

    • A thick layer of heavy leaves (maple or catalpa, for example) left on the lawn over winter may inhibit growth in the spring. Best to run a mower over them to shred them and then spread the shredded leaves at the base of shrubs or over perennial beds.

  3. To Don, Sept. 23

    Hi Don,

    I don't have experience with a chipper/shredder machine, the kind with steel blades for chipping wood. But I do know they're useful for all kinds of applications (like producing rough mulch, and chipped wood garden pathways), so long as you've got the sticks to feed into the thing. They probably do a terrific job on leaves! They can be quite expensive, and the cost increases with the chipping capacity. If you're content to chip wood up to 4 cm or 1-5/8" in diameter, then you can probably find a reasonably priced machine. Also consider if you want electric or gas powered. You might start looking at http://www.canadiantire.ca and search that site for 'chipper shredder'. Then perhaps do an Internet search to see what other sizes and prices are out there. Happy chipping!

  4. To Susan, Sept. 23

    Hi Susan,

    You're quite right about potentially spreading the quackgrass, as the seeds are produced in late August and into September. For more info about this plant, see this web site: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/q… .

    Probably the best thing is to change the leaf shredding venue, possibly spreading maple leaves on the driveway and going over them with the lawn mower. This might take longer (depending on size of driveway), but you may also be able to make the layer of leaves thicker.

    If you have space available, you can also consider traditional leaf mulching, simply making 1 meter-high piles of leaves and allowing them to age for a year. The piles can be fenced in or even covered over with chicken wire to keep them in place.

    Hope some of these ideas work for you!

    — Judith

  5. Sounds great, Judith! But what about those of us whose homes are surrounded by 150-year-old sugar maples? We try to mow over the leaves to cut them a bit, then rake them up. But — our so-called lawn has a lot of quack grass in it, so I fear I am also spreading weeds to the garden beds. Advice?


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