This spring, collect leftover leaves to improve the garden soil

The coronavirus lockdown is causing many people to think about starting a garden this year.

If this is your first year of gardening, start preparing your garden space early, well before you plant seeds. For example, we still collect organic materials like tree leaves to add to our garden beds.

Seasoned gardeners know that tree leaves are one of the most valuable materials that can be added to a garden. We collected many, many sacks of leaves last fall, but there is always room for more in the garden.

It is obvious that autumn is the best time of year to collect fallen tree leaves, but there are still leaves that can be found in spring. Since not everyone rakes their yards in autumn, last autumn there were a lot of leaves that were dropped along fences, hedges and other places. These can now be added for use in the garden.

When I work with leaves in the garden, I like to think of it as imitating a forest floor. I will work some of them directly into the soil, and lay the rest on top as mulch to reduce weeds and maintain even soil moisture.

Deep applications of leaves tend to form shallow layers as they settle. These layers eventually become impermeable to water and air, which means that rainwater flows off and the efficient exchange of air is reduced.

Chopped leaves are absolutely the best for the garden. We collect our leaves using our Toro “Ultra” electric leaf blower / vacuum which vacuum sucks the leaves and then cuts them to just the right size. The chopped leaves are immediately collected in a cloth bag that is hung over your shoulder. It’s light, quiet (I hate the sound of gas-powered leaf blowers), and easy to use. Driving a lawnmower over a pile of leaves works fine too, but with larger leaves like oak or maple, you’ll need to walk over it a few times to get adequate shredding.

Leaves alone provide only a small percentage per dry weight of the three macronutrients; Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). What makes them so valuable is their ability to provide food and fuel for soil microorganisms that form humus in the soil. A relatively poor quality soil can be turned into rich, loamy garden soil in a season or two by the addition of chopped leaves.

Leaves also contain all of the micronutrients that plants need to grow. Tree roots bring these nutrients up from deep underground and use them to grow leaves, which in turn release the micronutrients into the soil as they fall and decompose. Most packaged fertilizers do not provide micronutrients.

Vegetables absorb and use these important micronutrients to grow and thrive. As soon as we eat our home grown vegetables, these micronutrient molecules are used by our body. This is one reason why local vegetables are so much better than factory vegetables.

Instead of complaining about your neighbors who didn’t rake their leaves last fall, thank them for helping improve your garden soil this spring.

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