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plants in WNC, asheville compost, leaves in asheville, leaf compost asheville

Fall leaf painting, Aunt Michelle

Many people put off raking leaves until well into the winter months, or even spring when the motivation for yard work strikes again. It’s generally a bad idea to put this off for that long, particularly for us in Western North Carolina with our wet winters and heavy clay soil. The winter rains often mat up the leaves, choking out the sunlight and killing the grass underneath.  So what to do with them? Here are some tips for dealing with fall leaves in the garden:

  1. Get those leaves up, particularly large leaves like maple (which most of us have around Asheville.) It is worth it if you value your lawn.
  2. Mow with a mulching blade if it’s just a thin layer of leaves or they are smaller leaves like birch. This adds some organic matter to lawns, as long as the grass is getting some sun.  It might take a couple of mows though, once the winds come around.
  3. Use leaves as mulch on your ornamental beds. This works best with shrubs or larger perennials like baptisia.
  4. Keep leaves out of beds with smaller perennials or that are sensitive to moisture. Plants like low-growing sedums and rock garden-type plants will have a hard time reaching the sun through the leaves, and won’t like the added moisture.
  5. Leaves take a long time to break down, don’t assume this will add nutrients that same season.  It can take a year or more for any nutrients to be available to plants, and even then it’s not very significant.
  6. Blow leaves off any hardscaping areas like gravel or rock paths and driveways.  Leaves will break down over time and create little bits of soil where weeds can grow. Try to stay on top of it weekly in the fall so they don’t form piles. Battery-powered blowers are great for this.
  7. Try using a small tarp for raking up piles, it makes it much easier to transport them where you want them.

What about fungus? Insects?

Fungi and bacteria are everywhere. There is no way to keep them out of the garden or the compost bin. It’s best as a general rule to not worry about it and let nature take its course. If the plant is susceptible to fungal problems, it will be there with or without the extra leaves. As far as pests, insects or slugs may overwinter in leaves, but they’ll be there anyway and it’s far better to build up the topsoil with organic matter here in WNC than it is to worry about pests. Healthy plants are the best defense against both insects and fungi.

Do we need to shred them?

Shredding can be helpful if there are a ton of leaves and/or they are getting used to mulch smaller plants like veggies and annuals, or if they are going to be layered in the compost bin. For many applications, it’s not necessary. It’s far better to take care of getting them off the lawn or hardscaped areas than worrying about the added step of shredding.  Shred if it floats your boat, but don’t stress about it.

Conclusion

Leaves as mulch are…ok. They are useful as a natural insulation if there isn’t another type of mulch available, and of course, the price is right. This author spent a lot of time and energy picking up bagged leaves from North Asheville during his first couple of years gardening. They break down faster than bark mulch and have an irksome tendency to get blown all over the place. You’d probably be better off with even free local wood chips from the city. Alternatively, you can layer leaves and add mulch on top of the leaves to keep them in place, but again, is the juice worth the squeeze?

This guy doesn’t really think so.

Robert Pavlis over at Gardenmyths.com recently posted a much more thorough article on what to do with leaves in the fall, he is an excellent resource for good gardening knowledge and worth checking out.