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What to do with those fallen fall leaves

Friday - 10/21/2011, 12:03pm  ET

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Shredded fall leaves are a great choice for a trouble-free mulch. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

What to do with those fallen leaves

WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath


Do shredded leaves make good mulch?

Colette in Woodbridge writes: "Our front yard is surrounded by huge beautiful oak trees. Not so lovely are the thousands of leaves we rake up each year. I'm wondering if we could mulch the leaves and then spread the mulch in our flower beds? Would the decomposing leaves help or harm our azaleas, Japanese holly and hostas?"

By "mulch" I'm presuming you mean "shred," Colette. And so the answer is, "Yes, yes, yes!" Shredded leaves are one of the best mulches you can use around any plant -- they prevent weed growth, retain soil moisture and attract earthworms to aerate the soil and feed your plants for free.

Just make sure you shred the leaves really well, don't put down more than a 2-inch layer and make sure no mulch of any kind ever touches the stem or trunk of any of your woody plants. (Don't imitate the fools who mound "volcanoes" of mulch around their plants. All they're doing is rotting the bark and shortening the lives of the poor plants.)

Oh, and you might want to put down an inch of milled peat moss first around the azaleas, holly and any other acid-loving trees and shrubs in your landscape to keep their soil pH nice and low. Then cover the peat moss with shredded leaves.

Wood mulch alternatives and pruning timing tips

Cathy in Sterling writes: "I love your articles at the WTOP website and have learned a lot about the problems wood mulches can cause. But what can I use as an alternative? Also, about pruning: Should I wait till November?"

Yes, Cath -- please do wait until November, and then wait a couple months more! September, October, November and December are the worst times of the year to prune any plant. Pruning in the fall can disrupt dormancy and cause severe winter injury. The dead of winter -- "the dormant season" -- is the ideal time to prune most plants. The exceptions are spring-flowering trees and shrubs -- wait until after they're done flowering to prune spring bloomers like lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons.

Now, your two best choices for trouble-free mulches are shredded fall leaves or rich, black compost made from leaves and other yard waste. They breed none of the nuisance molds that make wood mulches such a menace, and have outperformed wood and bark mulches at keeping weeds down and moisture in the soil in every university study.

"He's gonna mulch those leaves right into his lawn..."

Steve in Clarksburg writes: "In a couple of weeks, my yard will be covered with leaves. Should I rake them up and bag them down to the curb? Or would it be good for the lawn to mow them into the grass with my mulching mower?"

Bagged leaves sitting out at the curb are one of the saddest sights of fall, Steve. Simply shred those leaves and you have a better mulch than anything you can buy at a garden center!

But your idea is also excellent -- shredding fall leaves into your lawn with a mulching mower is a lot less work than bagging them up or even collecting and shredding them for mulch! And your lawn is starving for the priceless organic matter they'll convey to your soil.

Unleashing the inherent nutrients of the leaves by pulverizing them into a powder with the super-sharp blades of a true mulching mower will provide your turf with a gentle feeding and help decompose thatch, which is a common side effect of excessive feeding with chemical fertilizers.

Just don't let WHOLE leaves lay on a lawn -- they would smother itů

Getting rid of ivy -- McGrath was right!*

Patricia in Greenbelt made sure I'd read HER email by typing "you are always right" in the subject line. She writes: "You once said that rainy weather is great for getting rid of English ivy because you can pull it out by the roots much easier when the ground is sopping wet. Well, once the rain stopped after a recent deluge, I took advantage of the situation and quickly filled a bag with vines and roots. It's going in the trash, not the composting, as requested by my homeowners' association."

Thank you, Patricia -- and yes, even the most tenacious roots come out completely when the soil is soaking wet. And your association is correct. Ivy is notorious for regrowing from even the smallest sections and belongs in the trash, not the compost pile!

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