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Moment of Nature - Sept. 29, 2017

Free mulch

Posted: September 28, 2017 3:25 p.m.
Updated: September 29, 2017 1:00 a.m.

Growing up in New York state, leaf-raking was an annual event and right-of-passage, almost as important as learning how to ride a bicycle. As kids, we made the best of it, raking the leaves into huge piles and then running and jumping onto them, much to my father’s disapproval. I don’t remember what my dad did with the leaves after we raked, but I can tell you what he should have done and what all of us should be doing with them: using them for mulch. 

One of the up-sides to autumn, besides football and cooler weather, is free mulch. After the tree leaves turn color and fall this season there is mulch for the taking. Mulch is material that is spread on the soil surface for the benefit of trees, plants and the soil. There are three kinds of mulch: artificial, green and brown. Examples of artificial mulch include decorative or lava rock, plastic pine straw (yes, it does exist) and rubber mulch mats. Artificial mulch provides little to no benefit for plants and soil, but it can be attractive in some instances and can be used in high-traffic areas, if necessary. Green mulch is composed of green organic matter such as grass clippings, annual and perennial plants or other herbaceous plants, which have not decomposed. Green mulch may be left to decompose naturally or shredded with a lawn mower. The majority of us are most familiar with brown mulch. As the name implies, it’s brown and can be composed of chipped, ground or shredded organic material such as bark, wood, dead leaves or even recycled newspaper. I’ve even seen chipped pine cones and crushed pecan hulls used for mulch. 

Out of all the materials listed, the most readily available (soon) will be dead leaves. Why use leaves for mulch? Let me count the ways. First, did I mention it’s free? Why spend time, money and gas going to buy mulch for your home landscape when it’s right there in your yard for you to use? Instead of raking leaves and bringing them curb-side for disposal at the landfill, use them for your landscape, vegetable garden or flower beds. 

Second, leaf mulch (and cut grass) helps condition the soil and provides nutrient recycling. Dead leaves are a great source of carbon and grass is a great source of nitrogen. When the two are mixed and spread over a naturalized area or landscape bed, it creates an environment good for beneficial soil microbes and insects, which help aerate the soil. As the organic matter decomposes it adds nutrients back to the soil, which improves plant health and reduces the need to fertilize. An easy way to accomplish this is to mow and collect the leaves in the lawn mower bagger; you don’t even have to rake them up! When the bagger gets full, spread the chopped mulch evenly across where needed. 

Third, leaf mulch helps retain soil moisture. Using chopped leaves as mulch now will help create an organic layer that will help retain precious moisture next summer, potentially reducing the quantity and frequency of irrigation. I do this every year at my house and the trees are much healthier for it. By mulching in this way and creating an environment that mimics the forest floor, it saves me from having to run the irrigation system as frequently, which in turn, saves me money. A win-win. 

Fourth, leaf mulch can also help reduce weed growth. Instead of using landscape fabric, which isn’t always effective and restricts water penetration to plant roots, a good 2-inch layer of leaf mulch will do wonders at keeping out those pesky weeds. 

Fifth, leaf mulch helps moderate soil temperature extremes, keeping the roots warm during the winter and not too hot during the summer. The more roots, the healthier the plants. 

Finally, mulching tree leaves reduces the amount of debris blown into the street that causes storm drains to be clogged. Clogged storm drains result in localized street flooding, which creates a safety concern. If you employ yard maintenance personnel, please encourage them not to blow debris into the roadways as it contributes towards the potential for clogged drains and flooded streets. By reducing the quantity and frequency of leaves placed at the curb to be thrown away each week, you can make a difference. Every little bit counts if we all do a little bit.

Enhancing landscaped areas with leaf mulch helps plants and trees retain their health and vigor. If you don’t like the look of leaf mulch, you can top dress it with either pine straw or shredded hardwood mulch. This will save you money because you will need less overall volume to cover an area. If you don’t care to use chopped leaves at all in your landscape beds, consider composting them to create some ‘black gold’ for your vegetable garden and flower pots next year. 

Leaf mulch and lawn clippings are free and a very effective way to mulch our home landscapes. This is what Mother Nature does in the forest and no one ever has to water or fertilize those trees, so it must be a good thing!

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