In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
November, 2006
Regional Report

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These colorful leaves contain valuable nutrients, so put them to work when they fall.

Don't Let the Leaves Blow Away

Now that winter is on its way, leaves are falling off the deciduous trees with the slightest breeze. The crunch of the drying leaves underfoot is a sign that a cycle of growth has ended and now is the time to recycle them into rich compost, or put them to use as a protective mulch.

Reusing leaves and other clean plant debris will not only make improvements to your landscape, it also will reduce the waste added to local landfills. Check with your city for leaf-recycling programs and incentives. Many will collect leaves, small branch prunings, and grass clippings and take them to a site for composting.

One of my favorite ways of collecting and recycling leaves is to mow over the lawn where leaves have accumulated. Be sure to have the grass catcher on the mower to collect the bounty of shredded leaves mixed with grass clippings. Since the lawn has slowed down its top growth, the goal is not to mow the lawn short but to maintain a mowing height of 2 to 2-1/2 inches. It's the leaves we want to gather and grind into smaller bits.

The Compost Pit
If you don't already have a compost pit in your garden, make one by digging a hole 12 to 18 inches deep and about 3 feet wide. Then, as you empty the catcher bag, pour the leaves into layers in the prepared pit. I like to scatter a light layer (about 1/4 inch) of topsoil over each 3-inch layer of leaves. This bit of soil will introduce natural microorganisms into the pile to ease the breakdown of the organic materials. You can also spread prepared compost over the raw organic layers to achieve the same effect.

One of the most important aspects of composting in our region is to add moisture to the pile on a regular basis. It is not unusual to have extended dry periods without rain or snow, so on warm days when temperatures reach 50 degrees F or higher, bring out the hose and lightly sprinkle your compost pile. If the pile is in a sunny spot, it should readily absorb the moisture needed to keep the microbes and other organisms happy and working. As long as the compost pile is not frozen, give it a few turns with a pitchfork every few weeks to keep the materials mixed up.

As the leaves decompose into smaller particles of rich compost, you can add them to your flower beds, vegetable gardens, around shrub and perennial borders, and any other place organic matter is needed. Soils that are predominantly heavy clay or so sandy that they don't hold moisture can always use added organic matter.

With a little effort now, you'll reap great garden rewards next growing season.


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