To some folks, fallen leaves scattered across the yard are perceived as a problem. These leaves must be raked up and then disposed of in some way. However, to gardeners, this task is viewed as an opportunity, that is, an opportunity to enhance the fertility of their garden soils. A crucial element in sustaining soil fertility, as well as its physical structure, is the annual addition of organic matter. Right now, we are offered a golden opportunity to do just that by turning those leaves into compost.
Ideally, the process begins by shredding the leaves. Though this is not critical, it does speed up the decomposition of leaves into useable compost. A leaf shredder can be used to do this but few of us have this equipment. As an alternative, simply run over the leaves with the lawn mower.
Shredded leaves can be tilled, directly into the soil now, but they should be turned under to a depth of at least 6 inches. Adding a source of nitrogen, such as a high-nitrogen fertilizer, will speed the decay of the leaf matter. Another option for dealing with the leaves is to simply create a leaf compost pile somewhere in the yard. I chose to create a pile right in the vegetable garden. Actually, I made several 3-foot diameter cylinders from wire fencing and dumped the leaves into these wire bins. Grass clippings mixed with the leaves serve as a nitrogen source. Fortunately, my good friends and neighbors, Gary and Kathy, have a chicken manure factory. They and their hens generously donated an ample supply of manure as an additional source of nitrogen for the leaf compost. The manure was placed in the bins, alternating with layers of leaves.
Ideally, to hasten decomposition, a leaf compost pile should be turned over occasionally, but I’m in no rush. By next spring, there should be enough decayed leaves to till into the garden soil. What isn’t decomposed will be used as mulch.
ARVEST AND PRESERVATION LOGS
My wife, Pat, must have read last week’s column in which I mentioned compiling notes on the successes and failures in the garden this year. Being the CEO of Food Preservation in our household, she suggested that, in addition, it would be wise to maintain a “Harvest Log” and a “Preservation Log.”
With a harvest log, one could keep track of when various fruits and vegetables are ripe and harvestable. This log would also be used to determine how many plants are needed to match food preservation plans.
A preservation log is a good way of keeping track of what and when garden produce was preserved. It would also be used to keep track of how much preserved food is on-hand at any one time, as well as what and how much the family is really eating. No sense in storing 50 pounds of beets when one member of the household, who happens to write a gardening column, has an aversion, to put it kindly, to that vegetable. Pat also suggested keeping track of expiration dates on home-preserved foods. Detailed Information on various methods of food preservation, including duration of storage, can be found on the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, nchfp.uga.edu/index.html.
A FEW TIPS
Here are a few gardening tips, which you may preserve or toss onto the compost pile.
Cut back on the frequency of watering houseplants. With declining duration of sunlight, the growth rate of most houseplants slows dramatically or ceases at this time of year and through the winter. As such, they need less water and no fertilizer applications. Use the finger test to determine watering needs. Simply stick your finger into the soil to a depth of 1 inch. If the soil feels dry, apply water until you see it running out the drainage hole at the bottom of the flower pot. To facilitate drainage, stand the pot in the sink when watering. Otherwise, have the pots sitting on a layer of pebbles in the pot tray. Several years ago, I built plant benches lined with metal and filled with pea stone as a way of keeping our house plants happy through winter.
Pot up amaryllis bulbs, one per pot, and keep them in a dark location until new growth begins.
Create little pockets of bloom by planting groups of 10 to 15 bulbs of species tulips such as Tulipa tarda, Tulipa clusiana, Tulipa turkestanica and Tulipa biflora among rocks, in front of small shrubs, or between buttressed roots of a large tree. I usually protect these and other small bulbs from rodents by planting them in wire cages made of half-inch mesh hardware cloth, and buried about 4 inches below ground. The bulb shoots will grow through the wire mesh.
Build a rock garden but don’t set out plants until spring. Rock garden plants prefer a coarse, well-drained soil enriched with compost. Preparing the garden now will allow the large rocks and soil to settle before spring planting.
Divide rhubarb plants that are at least 8 years old. Work lots of rotted manure or compost into soil and replant the divisions. Rhubarb is thought to be native to Siberia, so it loves the cold. Just the same, cover the planted divisions with a layer of compost for the winter.
Check kale, broccoli and other brassicas remaining in the vegetable garden for presence of cabbage worms. These critters are still actively dining on members of the cabbage family. For control, apply an organic pesticide containing either Bt or spinosad.
Gather rotted or diseased fruit from beneath fruit trees and put them on the compost pile or bury them. This will reduce sources of disease-causing fungi as well as the supply of projectiles for any budding young ballistics experts in the neighborhood.