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For the Love of Leaves

Q. Daniel in Arlington writes: "I love your 'Garden Plot' bits that air Saturdays on WTOP; and I just found your "You Bet Your Garden" podcast, so I'm listening and preparing for the season.Question: This fall I had some leaves blow into part of a garden bed. I see that a lot of my garden has some weeds growing but the part that had wet leaves on it has none. What are your thoughts on using whole vs shredded leaves as a winter cover?"

A. First, allow me to explain Daniel's reference. Shortly after You Bet Your Garden began on Public Radio, I was recruited to be the Garden Editor for WTOP; the (commercial) all-news station in Washington DC, where my one-minute bits continue to air all day on Saturday. You can enjoy the written versions of these gems at WTOP dot com.

Now, to directly answer Daniel's question (instead of weaseling around the topic like I normally do), fall leaves are THE best garden mulch for winter, spring, summer, fall and any interesting new seasons that climate change brings upon us. I do always say that "shredded thy leaves must be", and that's 100% true for compost making and leaves left on a lawn or on other active plantings, as one of the 'jobs' of whole leaves is to smother small plants on the forest floor and reduce competition for the trees. In the wild, trees are bullies and whole leaves are their henchmen.

But what about whole leaves on an empty garden bed that might otherwise support the growth of winter weeds like henbit, deadnettle and chickweed? Those whole leaves will smother those unwanted invaders just like they do plants on the forest floor; and raking them off the beds in the Spring two weeks before planting time (to allow the soil to warm up) would work well at that single task.

The downsides are possible mold issues on the undersides of the leaves (which are in direct contact with the soil), and their prevention of airflow into the soil, which is vitally important, although little discussed.

The roots of plants and the billions of organisms that constitute soil life need to receive oxygen and nitrogen from the air. Think of it the same way as airflow between plants. When you crowd plants together, bad things happen. When you deny airflow to your soil, bad things can happen, and good things are prevented.

But I wouldn't worry too much about that bed this season. Just rake the leaves off to let the soil warm up and then plant away two weeks later. But don't remulch with whole leaves. Shred them up to create a mulch that prevents weeds, retains soil moisture AND allows airflow and rainwater to reach the soil AND creates the perfect habitat for earthworms to live under and improve your soil a little bit every day.

Q. We move on to Sue in Brick, New Jersey who writes: "At the end of the season two years ago, I had some leftover straw and decided to mulch the garden with it for the Winter. The following season I was inundated with weeds. After listening to one of your shows I realized that the straw had seed pods in it. Unfortunately, I took ill and wasn't physically able to get back out to the garden, so the weeds just grew and grew until the end of the season. That's where things stand now. I'm so upset! What can I do to return my garden to its original state? I'm afraid of trying something only to find out that it caused more germination of the weeds. I don't know where to begin."

A. You'll begin with one of my favorite tools; a hand-held flame weeder that uses a camp-stove-sized propane canister to ignite a flame at the business end of the device; a flame that you will use to torch the tops of the plants to insure that any remaining seeds are destroyed.

Now, its possible (if you're lucky) that birds, mice, rats and voles ate most of the seed your hay bales produced. It's also possible (if you're unlucky) that much of the seed dropped to the ground where it might re-sprout. The typical plants contained in a hay bale would be grasses like timothy, fescue, rye and Bermuda; the despised plant known as 'orchard grass': and legumes like alfalfa and clover; the last two being excellent cover crops. But to gain their benefits, you'd have to till them back into the soil which would make your garden an even bigger weed provider for many years. (Tilling = weeds. As Casey Stengel used to say, "you could look it up.")

Sorry about your physical setback; I'm nursing a back problem so I know how frustrating it can be. Luckily my partner in life, crime and gardening (Miss Diane) and several of my friends (Hello Wineberry Girl!) love to pull weeds! At any rate, torch those seed heads and then (wearing gloves!) pull your field of grasses up slowly by the roots from soaking wet soil and mulch your new plantings well with shredded leaves or pine straw, which is not seedy.

And let this be a warning to all of youse out there; don't trust signage! Inspect every bale of so-called "straw" and if you see any seed heads, pass it by--because that's hay and not straw.

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