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Shred Those Fall leaves into Future Garden Glory!

Troubled by Compost that Isn't Cooking? Wood Mulch Monsters Staining Your Home? The Solution is About to Fall Right Into Your Lap!

Q style="font-family: arial;">. Dear Mike: We have a compost barrel we got at a garden fair. It's over halfway filled with kitchen garbage--no leaves, because we mulch them back into the lawn with our mower. The compost has never been turned, nothing has been added to it to speed up the process, and I'm getting nervous. What happens when it's filled up?  How can we move things along? I have this scary vision of our yard filled with full compost bins.
                         ---Sky in New Jersey

Mike: A couple of years ago we put mulch down around our house and got these small specks all over the aluminum siding. My wife remembers that you said the specks were actually a mold that comes from wood mulch. We want to mulch this year but obviously want to avoid the mold problem. Can you recommend a safer mulch? Someone told us that grass clippings could be used if the grass was not treated. But we treated our grass this year, so this is not a solution. Thanks for your help.
                         ---Teddy P.; Downingtown, PA,

A. The answer to both your questions is in the process of turning beautiful brilliant colors and beginning their inevitable drop to the ground--Fall leaves. Some misguided folks think of them as an onerous outdoor chore, but we good little gardeners know that leaves are the secret to having a beautiful chemical-free landscape! And they're FREE!

Sky: You absolutely NEED the carbon in shredded leaves if you intend to use your kitchen waste--or other nitrogen-rich green material--to make compost. Ah, compost! Garden Gold! A better disease-fighting, plant-feeding, soil-improving material than anything you can buy--and its FREE!!!  

Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.

Anywho, all you got now is an oversized garbage bucket. Empty it out and start over, adding lots of shredded leaves to the mix--about four parts shredded leaves to each part  kitchen waste. You've actually been hoarding the wrong half of the equation--it's the leaves that turn into compost; your kitchen scraps simply provide the food that fuels the transformation. In fact, you can compost shredded leaves all by themselves. As you learned, you can't do that with just green waste.
Teddy: Shredded leaves are also one of the absolute best mulches; they prevent weeds better than wood chips or shredded bark--without breeding those dreaded house-staining fungi of which you are already acquainted. And they're FREE!!!

But Shred Them You Must
Whole leaves mat down when they get wet, smothering 'underground' plants like Spring bulbs and herbaceous perennials. (You COULD use whole leaves to mulch bare ground, but it looks arf-ill.) And whole leaves take FOREVER to break down in a pile, bin or barrel, preventing the mixture from heating up and becoming compost. Shred those leaves up, however, and you'll create the perfect mulch and compost makings!

My favorite way to do this is with a leaf blower. Yes, most people DO just use these machines to blow their leaves onto the neighbor's lawn. But almost all blowers have a reverse setting, and attachments that allow you to suck those leaves up into a shoulder bag or other handy container. AND a built-in shredder minces up those leaves so well it reduces their volume by--at least--a factor of ten, allowing you to store--at least--ten bags worth of whole leaves in just one bag!  At least! So quit blowing and start sucking!

Or make compost with your lawnmower! Sky: Running over your leaves with a mulching mower is a great idea; that combination of pulverized grass clippings and leaves makes a fine Fall feeding for your lawn. But you also need to be sucking and shredding (or "S & S" as we like to call it around the office) the leaves that 'Fall' in other areas for your compost needs. Get it? "Fall"? WAKE UP PEOPLE! THESE ARE THE JOKES!!!!

Sorry. Anyway, those of you what already fed your lawn this Fall can use a variation of this trick to make instant compost. Just let a layer of leaves collect on your lawn and then mow over top of them, bagging up that perfect mixture of leaves and clippings as you go. Empty the bags into an open container with lots of airflow, and it'll turn into super-premium compost by Spring.

But don't do this if--like Teddy!--you've committed the (completely unnecessary!) chemical herbicide sin. Yes, Ted--your clippings are likely toxic to plants.

OK--back to mulching. It's very appropriate that Halloween--my favorite holiday--is right around the corner, because wood chips, shredded bark, and root mulches can be as frightening as a gruesome ghoul when they breed 'shotgun' or 'artillery' fungus. As Teddy knows too well, these fungi shoot spores that permanently stain cars and homes within 30 feet of the mulch what bred them. (You'll find all the details in Ohio State's Extension bulletin on problem mulches, which has been posted under "Mike's Tips" at our website for years. (Here's the link:

You can avoid this expensive and aggravating problem by using shredded leaves instead. They look just as nice as wood mulch, don't breed destructive fungi, are much better for your plants--and best of all, they're free! (Have I mentioned that part yet?) Shred and bag a big batch every weekend and you'll have a year's supply in no time.

Oh--no matter WHAT kind of mulch you use, never run it all the way up to the house (that would provide cover for traveling termites), never let the mulch actually touch a plant stem or tree trunk, and never apply more than a two inch layer for any reason.

You Bet Your Garden   ©2004 Mike McGrath

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