Many folks view the fallen leaves in their yards as a nuisance, something to be laboriously raked up and disposed of. On the other hand, I view those leaves as a luxury. ("Oh, no! He must be sipping the fermented cabbage juice again.")
I don't even know what fermented cabbage juice is, but I do know that a common mistake among gardeners is the failure to add organic matter to garden soils annually.
Why bother adding organic matter at all? Because it is the heart and soul of healthy, productive garden soils. It improves the water- and nutrient-holding ability of soil, supplies nutrients for plant growth, improves soil structure and serves as food for beneficial organisms living in the soil.
Why annually? Because the level of organic matter in soil is not static. Over time, organic matter is broken down or digested by living organisms with the carbon component eventually recycled into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. (Remember the carbon cycle from high school general science? Oh, you cut class that day.)
There are many ways to add organic matter to garden soils, but one of the simplest is to place those nuisance leaves onto your gardens. It's best to shred the leaves first by running over them with the lawn mower. Shredded leaves don't pack down forming water-impenetrable mats the way that whole leaves do.
Things to do with shredded leaves:
n Mulch garlic plantings. Yes, now is a good time to plant garlic. Usually I place straw over the garlic, but if straw is not available, shredded leaves are a good alternative.
n Cut down asparagus shoots after they turn yellow and then place a layer of shredded leaves over the asparagus bed. Bury the cut asparagus shoots as this will help in the long-term control of Asparagus Beetle, a major pest of asparagus.
n Put a deep layer of shredded leaves over leeks, carrots, parsnips, beets and other hardy crops still in the ground this November to keep soil from freezing. This will allow harvest of these vegetables well into late fall and winter.
n Scatter a two- to four-inch layer of shredded leaves over vacant areas in annual flower beds and vegetable gardens. The leaves may be left on the soil surface until early next spring, at which time they should be tilled into the soil at least two weeks before planting flowers and vegetables. It is likely that earthworms will be pulling many of these leaves into the soil this fall before the ground freezes.
n Scatter a two- to four-inch layer of shredded leaves mixed with fresh grass clippings over garden soils and then till these into the soil. This is an alternative to the above approach. The advantage is that leaves will decompose more quickly in the soil than they will on the soil surface, and allow for earlier planting next spring. Since grass is rich in nitrogen, it will speed up the decomposition of shredded leaves by nitrogen-hungry bacteria and fungi in the soil. A note of caution: Avoid walnut leaves since they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of some plants. Also, do not use grass clippings from lawns treated with herbicides.
n Save a substantial amount of shredded leaves in plastic bags and store these over winter. Next spring, use the leaves as mulch around plants in flower and vegetable gardens.
n Pile up any leftover leaves to create a compost heap. Mix in herbicide-free lawn clippings, non-meat kitchen scraps, and disease-free plant debris from your gardens to achieve a balance between the high carbon content of the leaves and the nitrogen-rich fresh materials.