Free Composting Materials

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Autumn Gold

After a brief cold spell, warmer Indian summer weather is back, bringing wild winds and yet more rain along with it. All this warm rain makes for fabulous fall color as the leaves reveal stored nutrients, notably sugars. In New England, where I grew up, autumn turned the woods to flaming masses of brilliant scarlet and crimson, tawny oranges and joyful yellows. Here in the maritime Northwest, the usual colors are more muted shades of amber and old gold. When a wet summer is followed by a warm, damp autumn, we get a much more vivid display. I especially love watching the ashy reds turn to smoldering fiery copper and molten bronze–perfect backdrops for all the more subtle chrysanthemum colors. All this beauty is also pure garden gold, just waiting to be harvested.

Time To Start Sheet Mulching

It’s still amazing to dig down and find bone dry soil just inches below the surface. Beds that have been steadily amended with compost and/or washed dairy manure are evenly moist and open all the way down (or so it seems), but any bed that hasn’t been generously layered with humus betrays its solid clay origins. The solution of course is to add more compost and more composted manure.

If compost seems expensive, fall is a fabulous time to start freebie sheet mulching. Nature is literally dumping excellent composting materials by the bushel all over the place every day. All we have to do is gather it up gratefully and put it where we want to find rich, deep, moist soil in the future. Fortunately, raking leaves is great exercise and also a highly pleasant activity (as long as you pace yourself). I aim for a few wheelbarrow loads a day, which I re-direct to beds that need help as well as places I’m planning to plant down the road. If you keep your eyes open, you can also find bagged up leaves left for pickup along with the trash. Toss them in the back of the car and count them as blessings!

Sheet mulching is very simple–just layer on all kinds of compostable material, whenever it comes your way. Grass clippings, smaller twiggy bits from pruning sessions, corn stalks and cabbage leaves, rotted straw and salt marsh hay, all get thickly layered over the proposed bed area. If there are lots of weeds, you can start with a layer or two of cardboard or just heap on your sheet mulching materials a little deeper.

Where weeds reign, a 12-18 inch layer is minimal, and more is definitely better. That’s where the autumn leaves come in. Heap them as high as you can, covering dry fly-away foliage with clumps of wetter leaves to keep everything in place. A few blown-down branches can also be used to blanket a newly mulched area for a few months. Come spring, you can push aside the top layer and find nicely rotted compost underneath, all ready for planting.

Or Try Smother Mulching

In really weedy situations, smother mulches can solve your problems surprisingly fast. Here in Kitsap County, county crews trialed smother mulches of various kinds on extensive mats of long-established ivy. They found that it made no difference whether they weed-whacked the ivy first or not, but that an 8-12 inch layer of coarse wood chips or arborist’s chips killed off about 80% of the ivy within three months. The remainder was easy to pull, since the bark mulch had opened and softened the soil.

That sounds like a lot of bark, but you can start with a truckload and keep it moving, forking it up and reusing it as you reclaim territory. You can also make an effective smother mulch with whatever you’ve got a lot of, even leaves and grass clippings or bales of spoiled bedding straw. Tackle a smaller area and mulch it as deeply as you can; even 2-3 feet is not to much for a really infested site. After 3-6 months, shift the top material off for the next spot and plant right into the well-rotted compost underneath. Sweet!

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2 Responses to Free Composting Materials

  1. Erica says:

    Last year we had problems with the wind blowing away our leaf mulch since our garden is in a wide open area. A friend suggested chopping the leaves with a lawnmower and the chopped leaves worked beautifully for our garlic bed.

  2. Ann Lovejoy says:

    Hi Erica,
    Yes, a push or power lawnmower works great for shredding leaves. Those without lawns may want to invest in a leaf shredder. Mine is a hand shredder made in Germany that I got from Smith & Hawkin many years ago–it takes anything up to and (barely) including corn stalks. Also, you can toss a bit of damp soil on the leaves, or just wet them down; once they get rained on a few times, they no longer try to fly away.


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