Don't throw out, burn fall leaves. How to fertilize garden plants with leaf compost
Q. I have been cleaning up all the leaves in my yard and I'm wondering how I can use them without creating a fire hazard near my home. I'd rather not burn them. I don't have green waste pick up.
A: I am so glad you are looking for ways to remove your leaves without burning.
Leaves are pure gold for your soil in that they contribute valuable organic matter to feed your beneficial soil organisms. Also, piles of leaves tend to smolder and give off large amounts of smoke, creating terrible air quality for you and those who live nearby.
One way to use your leaves is to compost them. This creates a valuable and free soil amendment that improves nutrient and water retention in soils. For decomposition to happen quickly there has to be a proper balance of food — greens and browns, air and water. You can find a free guide to composting in the University of California's composting guide at bit.ly/3tckVnF.
You can also pile leaves up to use for later compost piles in the spring when you have more green waste. I like to use hog wire or cattle feedlot fence panels formed into a ring to pile leaves in so they don't blow around.
You can also just let the leaves sit in the rings until they decompose into leaf mold. You may have heard the phrases “compost happens” or “let it rot.” It’s absolutely true. When you leave certain organic materials alone, they will eventually decompose into a wonderful soil amendment. Leaf mold does not add a lot of nutrients to the soil but it does improve the soil structure and increases the ability of the soil to hold water.
Another way to use leaves is to chop them up into lawn fertilizer. This can be done by running a mower over the leaves on the lawn several times to cut them in to tiny bits and then just leave them on the lawn to add organic matter and fertilizer to the lawn. By leaving grass clippings and leaf parts on your lawn you can cut the required yearly fertilizer need in half and improve the overall health of your lawn.
Leaves also make a great mulch for garden and flower beds. To make them into mulch, build windrows of the leaves and run your mower over them a few times, or rake them up into a plastic trash can and use a string trimmer to chop up the leaves; run the string trimmer inside the trash can until leaves are in small pieces. Once leaves are chopped you can use this wonderful mulch on your garden beds and around your trees, roses and other shrubs. They decompose over the winter and can be mixed into the surface soil so they don't pose any fire danger next summer.
Finally, if you grow a big garden, considering using wire frames built from hog wire or chicken wire into which to you can pile leaves for use next spring. The piles will decompose over winter and can be used for planting potatoes, squash or pumpkins next spring; just add a bit of soil on top of the decomposed leaves and plant directly into the ring.
The Shasta Master Gardeners Program can be reached by phone at 530-242-2219 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The gardener office is staffed by volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners' questions using information based on scientific research.