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Autumn leaves are nature's gift for mulching

Posted Tuesday, November 8, 2005 - 9:55 am

By Durant Ashmore

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It's time to consider transplanting plants, trees (11/22/05)
Deciduous shrubs more than "bunch of sticks" (11/15/05)
Autumn leaves are nature's gift for mulching (11/08/05)
Plant colorful winter annuals without delay (11/01/05)
Changing landscape rides in with cold winds (10/25/05)

Every now and then I'll run across an individual who will proudly boast of his landscape development and how easy it is to keep up.

This individual will have his house situated in the middle of his property in the middle of an expansive lawn. All the trees have been cut down. He doesn't have to rake leaves. Spending hours in the hot sun on the prerequisite riding lawn mower does not count as maintenance.

I don't have a lot in common with this individual, except that I don't rake leaves either. I blow them off the driveway when company is coming, but otherwise I relish every leaf that falls on the ground.

Leaves are a good thing. They are nature's free mulch and they have been performing that role quite suitably for the past 65 million years or so.

When we apply mulch to our landscapes we emulate what nature does for us naturally. Properly mulched landscapes are an effort to replicate nature. Mulch holds in moisture for our planted beds, discourages weed growth and provides organic matter for future plant growth. Leaves are free and they accomplish everything that we desire in mulch.

Leaves grow on trees. Trees shade and cool houses in the summer and allow warm sunlight in during the winter. Having trees in the landscape is a win-win situation with very few negative aspects.

Use leaves for mulch in your natural areas wherever possible. For formal areas, such as the foundation of the house, you may want to use double-ground hardwood bark. Pine needles are not as effective in weed control and they don't provide as many organic benefits. Pine needles are convenient if you have to mulch a hard to reach area at the top of a long flight of steps. Otherwise, use hardwood mulch in new installations or in a formal situation.

Leaves should not be allowed to remain on a lawn. They will smother it out. Remove these leaves and decide if you want to put them on the curb for disposal or if you want to pitch them into a natural area. Any leaves that do fall into a natural area should remain where they fall. Think of the savings in time, effort and money. Use of leaves in natural areas is one of the primary tenets of a low maintenance landscape.

Leaves may be somewhat unattractive and overwhelming the first six weeks or so after they fall. Have patience here. Soon they will compact and begin to break down. If you don't have patience for this, then chop up your leaves in a leaf mulcher. This creates a very attractive mulch that is appropriate in any setting.

In any case, don't install bark or pine needles until after leaves have finished falling or you will spend a lot of effort keeping the leaves off of your new mulch. January and February are the best times to remulch formal beds. There is little to do anyway at that time of year.

One of the drawbacks to leaves is that they may stop up gutters. This is not a good thing. The gutters may fail and rot away the fascia board. Gutter shield systems may prevent leaf clog, but be sure to totally check these systems out. Some work much better than others.

Of course, the first question you should ask is whether you even need gutters. Many times I wonder what their purpose actually is. Once a gutter is installed it leads to a whole series of effects that have notable bearings on the landscape.

Gutters keep torrents of rain from falling on you as you come and go from your house from a rainstorm, but porches and porticos do the same thing. You will have a sheet of water cascading down where two gables intersect and gutters may be the best way to deal with this, but be aware that a whole series of events evolves after gutters are installed.

Gutter downspouts cause wash if they aren't piped off. Underground piping is not cheap. Wash will occur if the pipe is not attached to an emitter with a riprap or sodded swale to handle the discharge. Another expense. If your gutters fail your fascia boards will rot. With all the factors associated with gutters it may be in your best interest to avoid them altogether.

Don't blame leaves if they cause problems with your gutters if gutters aren't necessary in the first place. Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or

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