Mulch and compost are both soil-enrichment materials that can be made from all those leaves beginning to fall from your — and your neighbor's — trees.
Mulch technically is anything that covers bare ground to protect or improve it. That could be leaves, bark, pine needles, compost, newspaper, hay, straw, gravel, grass clippings or plastic materials. While each has its pros and cons, some are more attractive than others, some are expensive, some may be easily obtained and some, like sheets of plastic, are actually detrimental to soil health.
Leaves make wonderful mulch. They are plentiful, attractive and natural-looking, and best of all, as they break down, they become compost to be worked into your soil. If you want great food from your vegetable garden, the single best way to reach that goal is to work lots of organic matter into your soil every year.
In order to be effective, leaves need to be shredded so they will break down more readily and help feed the soil next spring. Some leaves, such oak, catalpa and magnolia are thick and leathery, making them slow to compost, so must be shredded. Maple leaves stick together when wet, forming a mat that doesn't allow the passage of air and water, so they need to be in smaller pieces, too. Leaves from any tree can be used, with the possible exception of walnut, as they contain natural chemicals that inhibit plant growth.
Probably the easiest way to shred leaves is to run over them with the lawn mower. Or chop them by putting them in a plastic garbage can and going at them with a weed whacker. Garden-supply stores carry portable leaf shredders for under $100 that work like a leaf blower in reverse. They vacuum up the leaves and chop them, collecting them in the attached, removable bag. Be sure the shredder blades are made of metal, not plastic, so it can handle small yard debris such as twigs and small cones. Like any shredder, they work best on dry material.
Spread your chopped leaves about three inches deep over your cleaned-up vegetable garden bed, flower beds, where you have planted bulbs, and anywhere else you have bare ground. This mulch will help keep the soil temperature even, thus reducing the possibility of freeze damage. But remember that the mulch will also keep the soil cooler next spring, so you may want to pull it back from your spring-flowering garden bed when growth begins in a few months.
Meanwhile, rain will go through the chopped leaves, replacing the moisture lost during our dry summer. It will also help discourage weeds and reduce erosion and compaction.
Not enough leaves in your yard? Ask your neighbors whether you can have some of theirs that have been bagged and put at the curb for pickup. Too many leaves? Consider making the leftover shredded leaves into compost for next spring's use by mixing them with grass clippings and letting them decompose in a pile, in a bin made of a circle of wire, or in a portable composter. It all helps the soil.
Coming up: Rescheduled from Sept. 11, Cliff Bennett will teach a class about the fall care of perennials from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3. Cost is $5.
The Master Gardener Compost Team will conduct a workshop on the basics of composting, covering both hot and cold methods, from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5. Cost is $10.
Both classes will be held at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. Call 541-776-7371 to register.
Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.