Hartley Magazine

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The leaves that have been swirling to the ground these last few weeks may be trash to some, but they are treasure to me.

In our neighborhood, everybody but me rakes their leaves to the curb to be sucked up by giant vacuum vehicles and carted off to a commercial composting facility. I’m the crazy neighbor who tries to get to those piles of leaves first.

I tote them back to my yard, where I shred them up for mulch and my own three compost bins. The leaves that fall on my property aren’t nearly enough to satisfy my greed; I would shred and stash all the leaves on the block if I had time.

The need for leaves was starkly brought home to me this summer when I didn’t have enough to mulch my beds against the drought. Last fall, I had been a little late getting my leaves shredded – hey, life happened —  and a well-meaning neighbor, enforcing community standards, thought she would help me out by raking my leaves to the curb for collection. My beds were left bare and my shredded-leaf larder was empty.

By the next June, my soil was drying out so fast I was tempted to go out and buy mulch – a thing I never do, since I can get leaves for free. I did a lot more watering than would have been necessary if I’d had leaves to mulch with.

Leaf mulch doesn’t last as long as shredded-wood mulch. But that’s a good thing. It means that the greedy things that live in the soil – fungi, mostly – are digesting them and releasing their nutrients to the roots of my plants.

I don’t bother to shred many of the leaves that fall on the root zones of my perennials and shrubs, and by spring, even whole leaves will have largely disappeared. Go, fungi!

Of course, you wouldn’t want to leave a lot of whole leaves on the grass. But a sprinkling of shredded leaves, well raked out, is good for the greedy things that live in the soil of the lawn, too.

I shred for several reasons: Shredded leaves tend not to blow around. They break down faster in the compost or in the beds. They are fluffier and less inclined to form a smothering mat, like whole maple leaves will. And you can fit a lot more leaves in your compost bin if they’re shredded.

To shred leaves, you can simply running over a pile on the lawn with a power mower. I don’t have a power mower, so for years I used an electric blower-vacuum that shredded on the vacuum setting, although it was a drag to carry that heavy thing around. Now I have a nifty stationary electric shredder, like a string trimmer in a can. I drop leaves in the top and they pile up shredded underneath. As long as I don’t ask it to eat sticks – it’s not a chipper — the shredder works great and my back is grateful.

When I have spread an inch or two of shredded leaves over all my beds and filled my three compost bins to the brim, I still keep shredding leaves. I have a nook between buildings where I pile up the surplus to use for mulch next spring, or a compost ingredient, or insulation for overwintering containers, or myriad other uses.

If you leave leaves alone long enough – a couple of years — they will break down into a fluffy substance called leaf mold. For centuries, leaf mold, which lightens soil, holds moisture and improves drainage, was a main ingredient in the potting mixes used in conservatories and greenhouses, until peat-based mixes came along.

Sometimes I hanker to blend my own potting mix using my own home-grown leaf mold, but I never leave my shredded leaves alone long enough to turn into leaf mold. I can find too many uses for them every day.