Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Free DIY leaf mulch

Last weekend, we took advantage of a brief interlude of nice weather in the middle of an unseasonably cold November to deal with some long-overlooked gardening chores. At the top of my list was tidying up the flowerbed in the front yard, which looked so promising last spring, but turned into a tumbledown mess by midsummer. I never did manage to get the flowers to stand upright again; some of the later fall blooms managed to grow straight up through the mass of flopped-over ones, but that just made the whole arrangement look even more disorganized. So it was almost a relief when the frosts of the past week withered all the remaining blossoms, leaving nothing but a drab, brown mass. At that point, there was no reason to leave them standing (or half-lying) any longer, and I could simply cut them down to the ground and start over in the spring. (The flowers we grew this year were all annuals; next year, the perennials in the wildflower seed mix are supposed to take over.  Those may be a little less subject to floppage, but just in case, I plan to build a support grid of stakes and string, as described in this article. Watch this space next spring for details.)

The other big task we had to attend to was raking leaves. We don't have any big trees in our yard, but our neighbors' send plenty of leaves our way—enough to make a huge pile on the patio. The big problem was not so much raking them as figuring out what to do with them all, as our compost bin was already full to overflowing. We could, of course, have just bagged them up and left them out on the curb for the borough to pick up, but that seemed like a waste of a lot of nice organic material. Since our now-denuded flowerbed was going to need a nice thick layer of mulch anyway, I suggested, why not put all these excess leaves to use for that purpose?

The simplest way to do this would have been to simply rake the leaves directly onto the flowerbed. That would have helped keep the bed tidy throughout the winter and warm the soil in the spring, but it could also have caused problems once the seeds started to sprout. Whole leaves probably wouldn't break down very much over the course of the winter; they'd just clump together in a dense mat, which might be difficult for the seedlings to break through. So if we wanted to turn these leaves into fluffy, nutritious mulch, we'd need to break them up somehow.

Fortunately, we knew of an easy way to do this. I forget where I first read about the idea of mulching leaves with your string trimmer, but it's simple enough. First, you fill a nice, big bucket (we used one of our trash barrels) about half full of leaves.

Then, you stick your string trimmer in the bucket, switch it on, and swirl it around to chop up all the leaves.

When you're done, you'll have reduced the half-barrel of whole leaves to a much smaller volume of coarse crumbs. You don't have to be a perfectionist about it: if a stray leaf here and there survives intact, it won't do too much damage. What you want to avoid is a solid mass of whole leaves that will just clump together under the snow, rather than breaking down.

It took about half an hour to process roughly half of the leaf pile in this way, producing enough mulch to cover the flowerbed a couple of inches deep.

The remainder of the pile can be tended to next weekend, or whenever we have a little free time. Depending on how much mulch we get, we can add that to the flowerbed or use it somewhere else, such as our bramble patch. And if all else fails, we can just dump it into the compost bin; the finer leaf crumbs will filter down through the bulkier items already in there, rather than piling up on top and spilling over.

Turning waste into something useful: what could be more ecofrugal than that?
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