In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
September, 2006
Regional Report

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At the Rodale Institute Farms, a custom-made device turns fall leaves, which end up as compost in the gardens.

Autumn Leaves: Recyle and Reap Rich Benefits

Soon crispy golden and scarlet treasures will float into our yards and gardens. Thin and fragile, these leafy powerhouses pack a nutritive punch. Leaves are dynamic food factories, turning light, carbon dioxide, and water into starches and sucrose that huge trees and bushy shrubs depend on for life.

Critters in the soil -- beetles, microbes, earthworms, and ants -- munch on dead leaves, breaking them down into minerals and nutrients that plant roots absorb as food. The end product is humus -- the gardener's black gold.

Yet our impulse is to rake up and discard these amazing gifts. Resist, I say! And recycle. Yes, rake leaves so they don't smother perennials and grass. Compost them, heap them to smother a weed patch intended for gardening next year, pile them to use as a soil amendment or mulch come spring (the pile will dwindle to less than half-size by then).

Leaf Power at Work
The Rodale Institute's Experimental Farms in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, are a testament to leaf (and composted manure) power. Amending the soil with leaf/manure/grass clipping compost is key. Every 5 years, they apply 8 to 10 wet tons of compost per acre.

Rodale's organic, regenerative approach to farming easily applies to our vegetable and ornamental gardens. In a nutshell, healthy soil produces healthier plants. More flowers, fruits, vegetables, and foliage; less disease and fewer destructive insects.

"We bring hundreds of farmers through here a year to encourage them to transition to organic so we have healthier food on our dinner tables," explains Rodale farm manager Jeff Moyer. Organic farming is viable and lucrative. Organically managed, rotated, no-till soybean and corn fields with rolled cover crops produce yields "equal to or beyond the conventionally farmed average," he says. "In years of stress (drought), our organic crops do better than conventional crops because we've built up the soil."

Adding organic matter enables soil to hold more water. Take 100 pounds of dry soil with 1 percent organic matter; that wet soil will supply 33 pounds of water to plants. Increase the organic matter to 5 percent and the wet soil will supply 195 pounds of water to plants -- that's six times more water!

Imagine the water you'll save by using composted leaves in your garden!


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