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Using fallen leaves in the garden

Q. How can I use fallen tree leaves in my garden?

A. Shredded leaves can be used to insulate various plants in the garden during the cold winter months. When leaves are used whole they can prevent water from penetrating the root zones of plants; therefore, it is important to shred them first. If only a small amount is needed, whole leaves can easily be shredded in a garbage can using a weed whacker. It is always a good idea to wear safety goggles when using a weed whacker. If a larger amount is needed, a lawn mower can be used.

Shredded leaves can be placed around strawberries and the base of tender perennials. Frames of wire or burlap can be constructed around larger plants such as hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and roses, and loosely stuffed with shredded leaves around the base of plants. This should be done after temperatures have remained consistently below freezing to keep the soil at a uniformly cold temperature and prevent roots from freezing and thawing. Applying winter mulch too early will encourage the soil to remain warm.

Another option is to compost the shredded leaves to use as mulch next spring. Composted leaf mulch reduces soil temperatures in the summer, retains moisture, and suppresses weeds. It is a valuable soil amendment and adds a finished look to garden beds. Mulched areas around trees and shrubs eliminate the possibility of mechanical injury to plants caused by lawn mowers or string trimmers. It is important not to apply mulch deeper than 2 to 4 inches to avoid suffocating plant roots. Composted leaf mulch should be kept from making direct contact with barks and stems of plants to avoid disease problems and to discourage small rodents from burrowing next to the trunk.