I love mulch. Not the red piney stuff that stinks to high heaven when it rains, but the natural layer of leaves and twigs that is provided year-round by our trees. Some people believe that the leaves are a gift to us from the trees. I think that one plant’s trash is another man’s treasure, and I recycle the plant’s waste. Whichever way you choose to look at it, leaves are very useful to have around. If you bag and discard your leaves, you may want to stop and pay attention.
I use leaves several different ways around the yard. I began using leaves first as compost bulking by accident. I compost almost everything biodegradable, including cardboard and paper, to reduce my waste stream and make soil for my garden. During Hurricane Irma last year, I used bags of leaf litter and soil as makeshift sandbags. After the storm, I dumped out the bags into the compost. When the weather is warm and humid, I find that my compost breaks down too quickly and compacts, becoming anaerobic easily. If I have cardboard, I will add it for carbon to bulk up my compost and slow down decomposition slightly. However, leaves are almost better than cardboard, and definitely make a more nutritious compost. When my compost compacts, I get a wheelbarrow full of dry leaves (mostly oak and tupelo) and add them (unshredded) to the compost bin. Then, I turn the compost to incorporate the leaves, and that usually balances things out for at least a few weeks. As they break down, I simply add more leaves.
I also use leaves directly as garden mulch. Part of no-dig philosophy is that to prevent erosion and soil caking, the ground should always be covered. In part, we accomplish this by always growing plants. However, mulch features heavily into this as well. I mulch between plants, and between rows of plants. When I take out a finished crop, I mulch the entire bed. When I plant the next one, I just move away the mulch from my planting rows and pile it in the center of the bed. It will spread out on its own and as the plants grow larger, they will automatically get a layer of mulch around them. I could use all sorts of mulch for this, but I like leaves for several reasons. Firstly, they are free. Secondly, they are light and easy to move around, unlike bagged wood chips. Thirdly, they already have a lot of fungi and bacteria on them, which helps inoculate the soil with the variety of symbionts that benefit many vegetable crops. Lastly, as they are broken down by weather and insect action, they add nutrients to the soil, feeding the plants. As with most mulch, they also make my job easier by blocking weed growth.
What should be avoided is the direct incorporation of leaves into the soil, e.g. by rototilling. Dead leaves are high in carbon, and as they decompose in the soil, they can temporarily bind up nitrogen, actually reducing nutrients available to the plants. This is fine if you have several months before you are planting the bed, but not so great if you put plants in right away. Leave the mulch on the surface, where it can do its job.
The third place I use leaf litter is in my chicken run. Chickens can smell pretty bad. I should say: chicken poop can smell pretty bad, but proper bedding can help a lot. I add a load (3-4 cubic feet) of dead leaves to my run every weekend. It takes about 10 minutes to collect and add them, and it really reduces the smell. This works in at least two ways. Firstly, by keeping the poop off the ground, it helps it dry out faster. Dry chicken manure is essentially odorless, in my opinion. Secondly, as the chickens scratch through the litter, the leaves and the manure are mixed closely, allowing bacteria access to the carbon in the leaves and the nitrogen in the manure. What happens when you mix bacteria, nitrogen, and carbon? Compost! The manure composts, which prevents it from rotting or attracting flies. When I need soil for the garden, I can clean the chicken run by taking out a portion of the composted litter, adding it to the garden, and replacing it with new leaves.
Leaves also keep things interesting for the chickens. They instinctively scratch to look for food, and if there is a layer of leaves, they can search for bits of food and insects that hide under the leaf litter. This encourages natural and varied behavior, which is keeps them from getting bored. Bored chickens do bad stuff, like pulling each others’ feathers. Entertained chickens are nicer to each other, making for a healthier flock.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if falling leaves are a tree’s gift to us or it’s trash disposal, to us they are a useful product that can find use throughout the homestead. This carries some message about the importance of recycling. Even if we can’t use something, it doesn’t have to be incinerated or brought to a landfill. Compost what you can, donate what still works, recycle what doesn’t, and only trash what you can’t get rid of any other way.
Do you have other uses for leaves? Tell us in the comments!
~The Homesteading Hippy