I love fall. It’s a welcome relief from the blazing heat with its crisp air and the gentle crunch of leaves beneath my feet. I have enjoyed quiet self-reflection on the popular saying that autumn trees show us how beautiful it is to let things go. In nature, when deciduous trees lose their leaves they simply stay where they fall, decompose over the winter, and add nutrients to the soil for the next year’s growth. A forest is used to these yearly cycles of shedding the old to prepare for the new. In my childhood leaves were viewed as something to be cleaned up and tossed in the green bin to be taken away. Now, when I look at fall leaves, I see them as soil building plant food and an important part of our local ecosystem.

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is an excellent resource to learn about local insects and other invertebrates. They have championed the “Leave The Leaves” movement that encourages gardeners to let leaves stay where they fall if possible. Leaves play an important role in gardens by helping to make sure the rain we get stays in our soil by decreasing runoff, and they protect our gardens by guarding against erosion. They also provide important overwintering habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators that support our local ecosystem and agriculture. The more I read about the importance of fall leaves, the more it seems that the best and easiest thing to do is to leave the leaves where they fall and let them decompose into our garden beds to renew the soil.

Of course leaving the leaves isn’t always an option. We need to sweep our sidewalks, pathways and gutters to keep things clear and functional, plus decomposed leaves aren’t going to enrich concrete. Personally, I think there’s something peaceful and serene about sweeping leaves, listening to the brushing and crunching, watching a kaleidoscope of warm colors tumbling into a pile, it’s a welcomed mini break from the hustle and bustle of the approaching holidays. Swept up leaves can be used for simple leaf pile composting, incorporated into a regular compost, or used as a winter mulch on garden beds to help insulate the soil.

Leaf pile composting is super easy and exactly how it sounds. By sweeping or raking leaves into a pile naturally occurring microbes and fungi will help break them down into an awesome fertilizer that, once aged, can be added to plantings as a top dressing or mixed into the soil when you plant. We gently turned our leaf compost about once a week last year and the majority of it was finished and ready to use by spring. The leaves that needed more time to decompose were added to our cold compost. We used the finished leaf pile compost for several of our spring plantings this year with excellent results. The extra organic matter from the leaf compost helps feed the soil and healthy soil is the basis for healthy plants.

When adding to a regular hot compost, fall leaves make an excellent brown counterpart to grass clippings as greens. The UCCE Master Gardeners of Stanislaus County have wonderful presentations on composting available on YouTube which you can find by searching for “Stanislaus county compost” on the YouTube platform. When composting, having a good ratio of brown compost material to green compost material is desired, so it’s great to have plenty of fall leaves to help keep your compost balanced.

If you have perennial beds, a nice thin layer of leaf mulch in your garden beds will help insulate the soil to protect beneficial soil organisms and shield roots from more extreme winter temperatures. This is a method that other gardeners and I have used with much success, and in my opinion leaves make a particularly attractive and festive seasonal mulch.

If you have a lawn, much of the expert advice suggests mowing leaves into the lawn so that they do not have a chance to smother the grass, but can still decompose into the soil providing food for the grass.

Whatever you do, there is widespread agreement that using your fall leaves in some way is the most economic approach and can offer many benefits to your garden.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “Leave The Leaves” movement check out The Xerces Society website xerces.org - there you’ll find information on fall leaves, invertebrate conservation, and even a list of suggested plants to attract pollinators in the central valley.

Until next time, I wish for you quiet self-reflection, preparation for new and wonderful things to enter your life, peace, serenity, and a very happy Thanksgiving.

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