Remember back in late February and early March — perhaps you were excited when those tiny leaf buds popped out all over your trees? Spring was here, and that was a good thing.
Then we got all that rain back in May and early June. That made those spring leaves grow bigger, and after that, new leaves followed behind them. All this created beautiful trees that shaded us from the hot summer sun. And that was a good thing.
Now that all those lovely leaves have drifted down to the ground, they may not seem like such a good thing, but they still are.
And now, in a period of two to three wet, slippery weeks, we’ve been watching all those lovely leaves drift down to the ground. And suddenly those leaves don’t seem like such a good thing.
But wait. Those leaves can still be an asset — something you can convert into value. Here are several things you can do to get the full range of benefits from your fallen leaves, plus a few pointers about things you probably should not do.
Enjoy the show
It’s not going to be too spectacular this year due to the prolonged summer drought, but you’ll still see glimpses of showy reds, yellows and oranges from oaks, pistaches, maples, ginkgoes, crape myrtles and pears. I rarely encourage people to choose trees based solely on their fall color (because it only lasts about eight to 10 days), but if all other things are equal, it’s a nice added incentive.
Collect your leaves
You may choose to rake or blow them or even mow and bag them. The critical issue is to avoid leaving them where they fell — on top of your lawn. Leaves pack down to form a shinglelike layer that traps moisture, and this stops the good movement of air through the grass.
Diseases love cool, dark and damp places. So, between our seemingly weekly rain events, schedule time to get those leaves picked up.
Leaves that have been run through a mower are pulverized finely. In that capacity, they’re great as mulches beneath shrubs and perennials. Remember that a “mulch” is a material you apply on top of the soil. It will function to repress growth of weeds, reduce splattering, slow drying during droughts and moderate the rates of soil temperature change.
Shredded tree leaves applied 1 to 2 inches deep will accomplish all that over the course of the winter, but they’ll be compacted and starting to decay by the time spring arrives.
Whether with raking, blowing or mowing, it’s important to gather fall leaves and put them to work in your garden.
Rototill shredded leaves into a dormant vegetable garden.
Because they do break down quickly, shredded leaves help loosen clay soil over the winter, which helps get it ready for spring plantings. In addition to the shredded leaves, add a combination of other types of organic matter like well-rotted manure, sphagnum peat moss, finely ground pine bark mulch and a high-quality compost.
Fall preparation of garden soils goes a long way toward increasing the successes of early spring plantings.
Use them for winter protection
There are always times when extreme cold threatens pansies and other winter annuals in our gardens, and shredded leaves are the ideal protection. I keep several bags tied shut, dry and available.
If it turns unusually cold, I’ll pour them out and over the annuals and leave them in place until the weather moderates, even if that’s a week or longer. Then I just smooth them out on top of the ground and leave them in place as ordinary mulch.
Add them to a compost pile
Of course, the most logical place to use fallen leaves is in a well-designed compost pile. As with the vegetable garden, shredding the leaves speeds the process. There are many good ways to compost, but it’s usually easiest if you have a three-sided enclosure that faces south, so the winter sun can warm the decaying organic matter.
Put a 3- or 4-inch layer of leaves and other organic matter in place, then cover it with 1 inch of topsoil. Keep it warm and moist. After a month, use a spading fork to blend it all together. Then begin a second layer, and then a third. Keep turning and blending it all, and after a few months, once the compost has decayed to a point that its components are no longer individually recognizable, it will be ready for use in preparing your garden soils.
Remove leaf accumulations from your roof
Leaves pack down, and in so doing, may cause water to back up in the roofing valleys and behind the metal flashing. The result of this is rotting decking and eventual leaks. If leaves tend to accumulate on your roof, have someone blow them off for you at least two to three times each fall.
Note: This is not a job for the unsteady. Frankly, it’s not a job for most seniors (personal opinion). Instruct the worker to use care in climbing over guttering that could be bent, or in stepping on valleys and ridges that could be damaged.
Consider gutter covers
I have found that gutter covers are a great salvation. Each fall I used to have to clean the oozing debris out of our gutters and downspouts. I was never really sure what I’d find in there, and since I was usually working from a ladder instead of hanging off the roof, I couldn’t see what I was grabbing.
Nothing ever bit me, but I finally decided to invest in one of the custom-fit covers that would let water into the gutters while it kept flowers and catkins out. I’ve been quite satisfied with the choice.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.