It’s the time of year gardeners look forward to finishing with all their watering, weeding, planting and gardening chores and to hitting the cosy chair by the fire. However, first there’s the important step of putting the garden to bed for the winter.
As the garden dies back, decaying material invites a host of fungal, bacterial and viral diseases into the garden. These can remain dormant in the soil to re-infect plants next year. One of my gardening mantras is “to prevent disease, remove disease,” and this makes the fall clean up an important task. By raking beds and removing diseased material, you avoid disease problems, such as scab on fruit trees and rust on garlic, leeks and onions.
Some gardeners love leaves and some gardeners curse them, but many don’t realize what a wonderful resource for the soil leaves are. You may see me outside your home if you have a big pile of oak or native maple leaves piled up outside it, because I stockpile leaves in fall by stuffing them into circular wire cages. When packed tightly into wire cages, kept dry from rain, they won’t break down. This way you can shake a cage of leaves into the compost bin or over a garden bed anytime of the year.
As I drive around in fall, I am on the prowl for oak trees, big leaf maples, sycamores and chestnuts because they are all wonderful sources of nutrient-rich leaves. For a pile of rich, crumbly leaf mulch, all you have to do is heap a large pile of fall leaves up in the corner of the yard. One year later, they will have broken down into the most amazing leaf mulch (faster if you turn the pile).
We have just experienced the driest summer, with only two rainfalls all summer, which is predicted to be the new norm. Helping soil retain moisture by building up its organic matter is a good idea. An acidic leaf mulch from pine needles is excellent for ericaceous (acid-loving) plants, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, pieris, hydrangeas, blueberries, heathers and camellias. These are also shallow-rooted plants that benefit from having their roots covered with a moisture retaining mulch.
If gardeners realized what a wonderful resource leaves are, breaking down to create a rich hummus and providing nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, they would value them and not remove them from the garden. They are an essential step to building and replenishing soil.
“Weed and feed” in my garden consists of mulching with what I call “Super Duper compost.” This feeds the soil and smothers weed seeds at the same time. This compost feeds a host of soil micro-organisms that make nutrients in soil available to plants through root hairs. The health of the soil determines the quality of the food grown in it, and we rely on nutrient-dense food to maintain good health.
Enrich your compost by adding any of the following organic ingredients:
Manure (cow, sheep, horse, llama, goat or chicken-can be fresh)
*Leaves (avoid waxy leaves, such as arbutus)
*Weeds (avoid weeds in seed or pernicious plants such as mint, morning glory and goutweed)
*Nettles (in season)
*Comfrey (in season)
*Horsetails (in season)
*Seaweed (visit your local beach after a winter storm)
*Wood ash (uncontaminated from paint or finishings)
*Sawdust and woodchips (not cedar)
*Comfrey, nettles and dried horsetail are “bio-accumulators” containing valuable nutrients that make high-quality compost.
Carolyn Herriot is author of “The Zero Mile Diet, A Year Round Guide to Growing Organic Food” and “The Zero Mile Diet Cookbook, Seasonal Recipes for Delicious Homegrown Food” (Harbour Publishing). Available at bookstores.