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Seed ’em and Reap: Oxford mulch good for plants, bad for weeds

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The sound of cicadas has faded as the sound of leaf blowers rises. The eternal question repeats itself: What to with all all of those leaves? Compost? Mulch? Curb service? Bag for trash pickup?

The debate is even more complex now that more and more people are learning the importance of leaf piles for overwintering beneficial insects. In my garden, they house little tree frogs and our resident Easter box turtle. Neighbors often comment on the light displays that fireflies bring on summer nights, courtesy of those very leaves. Not to mention my fluffy bottomed bumble bees. But home owners’ agreements and local ordinances won’t allow you to just leave them be.

For the record, my house is in the heart of the city. Yet it’s rich in wildlife and especially insects. It’s been interesting working with the city on ordinances and such, so I hope to impart my methods and experience here, for other ‘urban crofters.’

When we moved to StoneOak Croft in 2001, I began leaf composting right away. Sadly, I learned from the city that open composting an acre of leaves was not optimal, due to issues with rats. In the city you need to use barrels or bins. There are many lovely options for those, which I detailed in this space two weeks ago. My experiences with compost tumblers have been sub-par. I continue to simply keep a kitchen composting bin and then layer the contents in the fall with the carbon rich “brown gold” that is autumn leaves.

Composting leaves is one to the very best things you can do in your yard. You need two things, both of which can be rented locally: A lawn mower with a collection bag; and a leaf shredder. There are nifty electric leaf blowers that have a leaf shredder attachment. They clog easy with twigs, but it’s cheap and wonderful for leaves that swirl up into corners (they have fewer twigs.) A standing leaf shredder is a joy. You can park a bin or bag under it, or just mulch on site and dump a ton of leaves into it. It shreds them to about ⅓ the original mass.

Shredded leaves are amazing, so I’ll focus the rest of this column on them. I coined a term back in ’04 for shredded leaves used around your plantings. We were at the Oxford Botanical Garden in Oxford, England, and I saw how they used the packed shredded leaves as a mulch to protect the tender roots of important plants. Our neighbors who frowned on “leaf mulch” suddenly changed their tune when I called it “Oxford mulch.” So, we’ll stick with that name.

When mulching with leaves, you want to shred them at least once, as a thick mat of un-shredded leaves can act like landscape barrier cloth and prevent your desired bulbs/plants from emerging in the spring. The full leaves will prevent weeds, though. Wait. WHAT?! A free, biodegradable, landscape weed barrier that improves the soil? Yes indeed, read on!

It’s simple. Around the base of every plant you normally would mulch this fall, dump about a 3-inch high mass of ground up leaves around the base. Sprinkle with water to flatten it down. It still looks high, but it will compress more. Top dress lightly (1-inch deep) with your favorite mulch. By spring the leaves will be rotted by half and your plant will be loving the carbon rich topsoil under the mulch.

For a weed mat, use whole leaves about 4-inches deep. Wet it down to flatten it as you go, then lay mulch in scoopfuls or slowly pour from the bag so it stays on top more. Place a triple-shredded hardwood mulch or wood-chip mulch about 1½-inches deep on top, as well. Smooth it out. It will look high for a couple days until gravity flattens it. This makes a nice place for larger critters like frogs, turtles and bumble bees to hide over the winter. Azaleas and acid-loving plants love this, by the way. If you have acid sensitive plants, you may want to mix this with a bit of garden lime to keep the pH in their happy place.

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