Leaves are This Gardener's Gold

The secret to Flip Brown's gardening success lies in the seemingly mundane -- the ubiquitous leaf.

In fact, this passionate gardener, business consultant and onetime homesteader, is a self-described "leaf rescuer." Each fall, Flip puts out a small sign in front of his Burlington, Vt. house: "Leaves Wanted." And truckloads of unwanted leaves soon find a home. He chops them and shreds them and fills wire bins with them. Last year he collected 57 large trash bags of leaves.

"I can't stand seeing good leaves go to waste!" he says.

And his 28 raised beds of mixed vegetables are better for it. Shredded down to about ten percent of their original volume, those leaves become a soil builder, compost enricher, summer mulch and season extender, all in one. Here's how:

Feeding the soil
Like many gardeners near Lake Champlain (a former inland sea), Flip has very sandy soil which drains quickly and dries out. But the soil in his 28 raised beds is dark, rich and crumbly—not light colored and sandy like the unamended soil nearby. Building that soil has taken time and a lot of leaves.

First, he trucked in topsoil (from the garden he had created at his previous home), to build his raised beds. To build organic matter, he applies compost and leaf mold to his garden each year. Leaf mold is a special fungus-rich compost that can retains three to five times its weight in water, rivaling peat moss. Plus the shredded leaves he adds each year as mulch get worked into the soil.

Off in the corner of his deep backyard is where the leaf alchemy occurs. That is where his compost pile is cooking away with a thermometer sticking out of it. Next to the compost pile sits a large wire bin filled with shredded leaves. He uses leaves as the carbon component in the compost pile. He also lets a bin full of leaves sit for a year to become leaf mold.

"Even if you don't shred the leaves, just leave them in a wire bin and let it sit for two years and you'll have a really nice product," he said.

Summer Mulch
In Vermont, temperatures fluctuate widely, not only from season to season, but even from day to day. That temperature fluctuation can cause a lot of stress on plants. Mulch helps moderate the soil temperature year round—during heat and cold!

Flip mulches cool-weather plants like lettuce with a deep layer of shredded leaves. This lowers soil temperature by 10 degrees or more to help keep lettuce from bolting during the warm summer months.

Plus, the leaves retain moisture, suppress weeds and create good habitat for many beneficial soil organisms like earthworms.

Leaves as a Season Extender
Last January 9, Flip cleared away a foot of snow, dug through the frozen crust of soil and shredded leaves and pulled out two dozen leeks for a midwinter meal. On April 10, he dug through 21 inches of snow, more leaves and a garden cover and what did he find? Bright green spinach.

A foot of shredded leaves can protect soil from the freeze and thaw cycle that quickly kills cold-tolerant vegetables like kale, leeks and carrots.

"You just can't beat fresh garden produce in the middle of winter," Flip said.

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