As a gen­eral rule, leave the leaves

The Progress-Index - At Home - - NEWS - LEE RE­ICH

If you had driven past my house in re­cent days, you might have thought you were watch­ing a movie in re­verse. There I was, open­ing trash bags, dump­ing out leaves and spread­ing them over the ground.

Th­ese were bags left curb­side for me by neigh­bors near and far.

It does seem crazy, doesn’t it, gath­er­ing up all th­ese bags and dump­ing out all those leaves? But dried, dead leaves con­tain stored en­ergy, the sun’s en­ergy. Put them on or in the soil, as I have been do­ing, and they re­lease their en­ergy to sup­port the growth and ac­tiv­ity of fungi, earth­worms and other soil or­gan­isms. Mostly, th­ese are friendly crea­tures, and nur­tur­ing them al­lows them to thwart un­friendly or­gan­isms, such as those caus­ing some plant dis­eases.

Be­sides disease preven­tion, when leaves are gob­bled up by soil or­gan­isms, the nu­tri­ents in them are be­ing re­leased. Think of all those min­er­als taken in by a tree’s wide, spread­ing and deep roots. Just fall­ing to the ground all around you, leaves are, pound for pound, about as rich in min­er­als as is ma­nure.

Not for ev­ery­where

Of course, spread­ing leaves over the ground or just leav­ing them there in the first place is not an op­tion for ev­ery site.

I have spread leaves over a hay­field in which I’ve planted chest­nut trees. In com­ing years, th­ese trees will shade out the grass; I’m just help­ing the ground be­come the leaf-blan­keted for­est floor that it will even­tu­ally turn into.

Be­neath a row of dwarf ap­ple trees, a leafy mulch keeps weeds from grow­ing and steal­ing nu­tri­ents and wa­ter from my small trees.

And no need to rake up all the leaves from even a man­i­cured lawn: A mulching mower can grind them up to let enough grass peek through to thrive.

If leaves form such a thick blan­ket that rak­ing is nec­es­sary, don’t bag them un­til you’ve spread all you can un­der your shrubs and trees, and over your flower beds. Save your­self ef­fort and do some­thing for the plants: At the very least, leave leaves where they drop.

Leaves plus time equals com­post

Still drown­ing in leaves? Hold off a bit longer be­fore you pack them into trash bags. Con­sider pack­ing the leaves into a dense pile for com­post­ing. Leaves make ex­cel­lent, weed­free com­post if you let them sit long enough.

In a rush? Then mix in some ma­nure, sprin­klings of soy­bean meal or other ma­te­ri­als rich in ni­tro­gen.

By next year at this time, most of the leaves you spread around or piled up this year will have ei­ther set­tled or evanesced into thin air, be­com­ing mostly carbon diox­ide and wa­ter. A sig­nif­i­cant but small por­tion will en­dure in the soil, hav­ing been trans­formed to hu­mus. This hu­mus pro­vides long-term ben­e­fit to the soil, aer­at­ing sticky clays and help­ing sands sponge up and hold onto wa­ter for plant use.

Roses, rhodo­den­drons, lawns — al­most all plants, in fact — ap­pre­ci­ate any leaves left or ap­plied around their “feet.”

Of course, if ev­ery­one fol­lows my ad­vice, I’ll no longer be im­port­ing neigh­bors’ leaves.

AP PHOTO/LEE RE­ICH

In this un­dated photo, a gar­dener spreads leaves be­neath a row of dwarf ap­ple trees, where a leafy mulch keeps weeds from grow­ing and steal­ing nu­tri­ents and wa­ter from small trees in New Paltz, N.Y.

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