News release: Those Autumn Leaves

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release Date: September 28, 2017
Headline: Those Autumn Leaves

Now that fall has officially started, we can get in the mood for all those autumn activities.  Every year we look forward to football games, fall decorations, picking apples, and raking leaves.  Well, maybe the last item on the list isn’t one of your favorites, but for the energetic gardener, it offers a great opportunity to pick up materials for use in the garden.  The only cost is the time and energy you expend in collecting them.

To consider how you can use them in your yard, think about your last walk in the woods.  Leaves were performing two important functions which can be adapted to your yard.  One is mulching.  If the forest had a good, thick leaf cover, you probably noticed that there were few “weeds”.  The other function is composting.  If you disturbed the leaves, you would have noticed that the bottom layers were decomposing, providing the forest floor with a rich source of organic matter and humus.

Leaves do make great materials to use for mulch.  One problem is that if they are left whole, they can form a solid mat which can actually keep water from penetrating well, producing increased runoff.  That isn’t what you want in your garden or flower beds.  The solution is to shred them.  Shredded leaves won’t mat together as easily, and make a great mulch.  They allow water to penetrate, reaching the soil.  The other benefits of mulch are still working for you, including weed control and moisture conservation.

Leaves make great compost material as well.  Composting can be a simple process, or it can be more complex, depending on how much effort you want to put into it, and what materials you have to add to the pile.  The least effort, and the slowest, is to simply pile up your leaves, and let natural processes take their course.  This will take time, as the leaves will not break down quickly.  Shredding the leaves will speed up the process, but it is still slower compared to a compost pile.

If you would rather see the finished product more quickly, try your hand at creating a compost pile.  There are numerous ways to do this, depending on the materials you have on hand to add to it.  Suitable materials include leaves, grass clippings, hay, sawdust, shredded newspaper, wood ashes, or almost any type of plant material you have on hand.  It’s best to avoid items which include seeds, at least starting out.  Seeds that survive the composting process can lead to a weed problem later, especially if your compost pile didn’t heat up well.  Cow or horse manure is also a great item to include if you have access to it.

To create a compost pile, its best to add your materials in layers.  Start with a layer of organic matter, such as leaves and grass clippings.  Then add manure, or sprinkle a little fertilizer.  Top it off with about ½ inch of soil.  The soil adds numerous microorganisms which help the composting process.  Then repeat the process, adding additional layers.  If the pile is too dry, you may need to add a little water, but don’t soak the pile.

Once the pile starts to work, it will heat up.  From time to time, you will need to turn it, mixing up the materials.  Eventually you will be rewarded with a rich soil amendment, which will add nutrients and organic matter to your garden or flower bed.

If you are starting your first compost pile, you will probably have a lot of questions that I haven’t been able to cover.  Fortunately, the answers are available in a series of guide sheets, available free of charge from your local University Extension center, or on our web site.  They deal with topics such as the proper balance of materials, diagnosing problems, and how to build a compost bin.