Years ago someone sent me an email titled ‘St. Francis’s Lament’ in which the nature-loving saint bemoans the silliness of replacing natural cycles with our human desires for control and cleanliness. As a modern example he discusses the silliness of raking, bagging and disposing of fall leaves only to purchase mulch to protect our landscape beds. Ever since then I have come to regard leaves not as a nuisance but as a free source of beneficial, aesthetically-pleasing, and most importantly free mulch for my beds.
Mulching is an important process for the garden, as it protects soil structure, reduces excessive temperature and moisture fluctuations, protects roots, and inhibits weeds. It doesn’t hurt that a newly mulched bed is rewarding and attractive. Fallen leaves, when shredded, have a rich amber and caramel tone, soft texture, and lightness that cannot be replicated by mulches available on the market. Also, as leaves break down they provide nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. Organisms breaking down the leaves also work to aerate your soil in the process and after a few years of mulching with leaves you will notice a loamier texture to the soil.
There are multiple ways to harness the benefits of leaf mulch. Shredding can be accomplished by mowing leaves directly into the lawn or bagging these leaves and using in adjacent flower beds. Traditional mowing blades will suffice, but avid gardeners often purchase a mulching blade attachment that creates soft, gorgeous leaf mulch. There are also many models of leaf mulchers on the market, many priced under $200; the initial price seems expensive but imagine the cost of all those bags of mulch and trips back and forth from the nursery or hardware store over the years (that adds up!) Also, in terms of environmental costs, nothing is more locally sourced than leaves from your own trees.
Here at the Civic Garden Center, we have a leaf mulcher that makes me swoon like a love addled teenager. It is a 3-way chipper and shredder with a funnel that can be swiveled to ground level to facilitate raking of a pile directly to the shredding mechanisms. In a short time, and with minimal effort, you get enough bagged leaves to cover at least ten to twelve square feet, the common coverage of a two cubic foot bag of mulch. At home I have a lighter duty, inexpensive model that does the same but is less forgiving with twigs and wet leaves.
At the Civic Garden Center we are in the process of piling leaves for future shredding, with which I hope to bed down our renowned hosta and shade garden and the Peggy MacNeale daffodil collection. Imagine curling up on cold winter days with a warm, but light down comforter; such is the experience of a plant hunkered down for winter with a light mulching of leaves. I encourage you to give it a try for the sake of your garden, the environment, and your wallet.
– Bennett Dowling, Civic Garden Center Horticulturist