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Strategic Leaf Mulching

Cultivating the Soil

Hopefully you were able to fully transition your garden for the fall/winter before freezing temperatures established themselves around the Intermountain West! With the swift weather change, and holiday season underway, it’s understandable that we might not have gotten the whole garden ready for its Winter rest. Fear not! There are ways to retain the nutrients in your soil over the coming months. Timing is the trick, aiming for a couple of afternoons that allow for as many of the following activities as possible. It may seem too cold for it, but just think of the folks you might see running and biking, bundled up in gear they can move in, and know that we’ve just got to add a couple of mobile layers to work in, and we’re ready to go. The garden could do with some layers as well! A few well-planned hours spent now could save hours and hours spent weeding next season.

One practice farmers employed in preparation for this drought earlier this year was thick straw mulch, though finding straw at this time of year might be hard. Gardeners practicing on a smaller scale can get a jump on mulching now, using an abundant (in many areas) natural material, tree leaves! According to an article in Catalyst Magazine on soil building from seed grower James Loomis of Green Phoenix Farms, now is the time to lay it on thick!  2-4 inches minimum, more than that is wonderful. According to some, 6 inches of leaves can all but eliminate weeds by depriving them of light, while providing shelter for earthworms and other micro-organisms to do their work in the soil. 


Strategic Leaf Mulching

Keeping soil covered is mimicking Nature’s way of doing things. In our freezing temps just think of it as a blanket (or two) to tuck in the garden and the many interconnected processes within it. Now is the time to collect leaves and lay them on thickly in areas you’re wanting to protect. Trees draw nutrients up from deeper layers of Earth and shed them this time of year, giving us an abundant resource to work with!


Tree Draws Nutrients


At this point it’s a dance many of us have not encountered yet. Boise, the City of Trees hasn’t fully dropped leaves yet. The branches are holding canopies partly covered in wet heavy snow that’s been falling off and on since last week.

Usually we get a chance to rake up fallen leaves before the snow falls. Now, we have to wait for the snow to melt, leaves to fall, and then collect them for this process. They may be wet and heavy. That said, they’ll be part of the way through their natural breakdown process, more evenly exposed to a layer of frosty snow. Around the first and last frosts, we’ve been suggesting the use of season extension methods to protect plants in our gardens from freezing because the cold will damage—and alter—the cellular structure of leaves. This can work in our favor in considering the strong fibers many tree leaves have, which cause them to break down more slowly.


Frost and Leaves


Pest Negotiations

This past year many gardeners had trouble with roly polys. They’re drawn to decaying matter, so you will want to carefully consider where and how you use leaves in the garden. 

Hungry Roly Polys

 In a Fall cycle like last season when leaves fell before the snow, gardeners who mulched with them may have a thick layer of mostly dry material under the upper layer that typically gets the precipitation. Leaves situated in that way would have taken longer to break down, providing roly poly’s a pretty ready source of food by the time our precipitation really hit in the Spring. Though ravenous, these critters were still doing their work of breaking down matter. This early snow can serve us by adding moisture more evenly to decomposing matter where we want roly polys to be feasting. Adding some coffee grounds or aged manure to the mix can aid in the decomposition of tree leaves as well. We can plan to redirect the hungry bugs from the tender tomatoes, squash, and bean plants that we want to be feasting on next year. 

Cover as much of the garden area as possible with a thick layer of leaves in their varied states of dry, wet, and maybe still a bit frozen. We can plan to move leaves off of the areas of the garden that we’d plant our edibles early next season. For the winter months, your soil can benefit from a nutritious sheltering layer of decomposing leaf matter, which is depriving weeds of light.

Early next year plan to weave some of these leaves into your compost piles. They can also be used in areas of the garden that could be mowed, shredding the remaining leaves into small bits for a last round of decomposition, or even till them under (noting mixed opinions about tilling), or turn them under by hand to provide the soil a layer of easily available nutrition. 

One way or another something will grow in soil in varied states of soil health when temperatures begin to warm again in the Spring. Without a thick layer of mulch, or another means of covering the soil, grass and weeds are likely to take up the cleared space unless it is covered with something else. Gardeners can always cut ourselves a little slack (and Nature) and allow for some weeds. 

Some gardeners and farmers maintain a successful output without spending a ton of time, energy and money by clearing all weeds, instead they work with them strategically. You can find out more about this in an interview we did with James Duxbury of B&B Farms in Kuna last month.


Just give it a few hours now, and revel in the benefits of this cultivated and cared for soil later!