Raking leaves isn’t my favorite activity, and with mature trees on 3 sides of my house I have plenty without the neighbors leaves blowing into my yard. But just like the guy with too many lemons I take advantage of the situation. My good luck stems from the fact that I have wide drain that runs along the road that backs up when it rains and forms a shallow pond. And that’s where I rake my leaves.
I let nature take its course and my lawn mower does the rest. It begins when the leaves saturate with water and fungi and bacteria begin to colonize the cellulose in the leaves. Cellulose forms as a result of photosynthesis generating glucose which is then polymerized. In its most basic form two glucose molecules are bound together and form structural cellulose.
Fungi and some bacteria possess the ability to break the bonds and derive glucose and other micronutrients from the leaves. Slowly the leaf breaks down. Worms help that process by feeding on the fungi and wiggling around as worms will do. Of course raking the leaves into a pile and mulching them with a lawn mower speeds things up considerably.
In the early stage the leaves are simply wet and matted and therefore a welcome environment for the fungi and bacteria. Second from the left are the leaves I ground up with mower last summer, the next pile was ground up last spring, and the pile on the far right was dug out the year before and is ready to be incorporated into the soil.
So let’s take a closer look at these piles. (click on the images for a larger view)
You’ve obviously seen wet leaves before but if you were to get very close or use a magnifying glass you’d see the telltale signs of fungi growing on the surface. You can’t see bacteria but you can smell it – if you’re a gardener you’ll recognize that earthy fragrance that I’ve come to love. While I have natural drain you can simply pile the leaves up where they won’t blow away as long as they have contact with the soil and thus its microorganisms which do all the work.
Just as when you are composting, reducing the particle size increases the rate of decomposition. While I refer nature’s way, leaves in this condition are also in the right stage for mixing with grass clippings and building a compost pile. One added advantage to this method is that the grass adds both moisture and nitrogen to the leaf mold. For best results thoroughly mix the two together and stack it up as high as 4 foot.
Every spring the southern winds bring me more leaves courtesy of my less than diligent neighbors and like water leaves flow downhill from their property to mine. But I can’t complain too much because this pile makes a great top mulch which can be hoed or rototilled in this fall. Those who practice the Ruth Stout method could simply leave the mulch where it lays and let the worms nibble on it through the winter months.
Originally I intended for this batch to be feeding a worm farm over the winter but events conspired adversely and I had to postpone my plans. While difficult to see there are threads of hypha running through the mulch and with a good soak and the right temperature I could be growing mushrooms. Instead I’m using it as an amendment for plantings with a thin layer over the top. My caution on this practice is that leaves register around 4-5 on the pH scale and without a lab test you can’t know how much acid remains.
I must admit that it pains me to see people burning leaves, or bagging them for the dump. But I also wonder about those who haul manure and sawdust when there’s so many leaves available here in the Ozarks. Whether you add them to the compost pile or let nature take its course and generate leaf mold you’ll reap the benefits in next year’s garden.
Call it Green Thumb Recycling and add it to your bragging rights.