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Using Composted Leaf Mulch

 

Composting involves primarily the microbial decomposition of organic matter. Compost, the end product is a dark, friable, partially decomposed substance similar to natural organic matter found in the soil. The organic matter content of soils is very important. It influences the physical condition, water holding capacity and temperature of the soil and especially the soil bacterial processes which affects the availability of mineral salts to plants.

 

Why We Compost Leaves

If newly fallen leaves are added directly to the soil without first being composted the microbes that decompose the leaves compete with growing plants for soil nitrogen. The temporary nitrogen shortage caused by the microbes can reduce plant growth. To reduce or eliminate this competition for nitrogen, composting of the leaves is recommended prior to incorporating them into soils. Need for organic matter most soils need an increase of 1/2% to 1% in organic matter. Sandy soils such as loamy sands and soils with very high clay content are improved the most by an increase in organic matter content.

 

Benefits of Adding Leaf Compost to Soil

Among the benefits derived from adding leaf compost to soils are:

* Drought damage to plants is reduced because of an increased water holding capacity of the soils.

* Soil tilth is improved making the soils easier to cultivate.

* Very small amounts of the 16 essential elements needed for plant growth are supplied.

* Adverse effects of excessive alkalinity, acidity, or 'over fertilization are reduced by the added buffering of the soil.

* The cation exchange capacity of soils is increased enabling the soils to hold more plant nutrients for longer periods.

* Decomposition of the organic matter produces organic acids which combine with iron and aluminum ions thereby reducing their potential toxicity to plants. This also makes more phosphorus available for plants because free iron and aluminum can tie up the phosphates.

* The added organic matter provides a food source for desirable soil micro organisms.

* When incorporated into the soil or used in a thin mulch 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick, compost helps seeds to germinate.

Overall compost improves the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils. Leaf compost however is not normally considered a fertilizer as it is too low in nutrient content. It serves primarily as an organic amendment and a soil conditioner. The nitrogen content of composted leaves on a dry basis is about 1/2% to 1% by weight. For other materials commonly added to backyard leaf compost piles the nitrogen content is: blood meal 10-14%, grass clippings 2-4%, coffee grounds 1 1/2%, eggshells 1-2% horse manure 1-5%, cow manure 1 1/2%, poultry manure 3-5%, ammonium sulfate 20 1/2%, urea 45%, bone meal 1 1/2-4%.

 

Using Leaf Compost as a Mulch

Leaf compost can also be used as an organic mulch on the surface of soil in place of peatmoss, straw, woodchips and bark. Organic mulches are valuable because they reduce rainfall runoff, thereby making more water available for plant growth.

*Decrease water evaporation losses from the soil.

*Keep the soils cooler in hot weather and warmer in cold weather.

*Reduce alternate freezing and thawing of soils which can injure the fibrous roots of plants.

*Help prevent soil erosion by wind or water.

*Keep soils friable therefore easier to cultivate.

*Increase biological activity of earthworms and other soil organisms which will aerate the soil.

*Prevent soil spattering on leaves, flowers or fruits such as strawberries.

*Reduce soil compaction from rain and irrigation water.

*Help to control weeds.

*Presents a pleasing dark appearance.

Recommended thicknesses of mulch layers: 2-3 inches for deciduous shrubs, trees, vegetables and rose beds, 3 inches for flower beds and 3-4 inches for shallow rooted acid loving plants.

 

Adding Leaf Compost to the Soil

A good rate of organic matter to work into the top 6 1/2 to 7 inches of most cultivated soils is 0.5 to 1.0% organic matter by weight. This is equivalent to adding 900 to 1800 wet pounds (25 to 50 bushels) of leaf compost per 1,000 square feet of area. To accomplish this, spread a 3/8 to 3/4 inch depth of leaf compost uniformly over the soil surface and mix into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.

Little or no nitrogen will be released from compost for plant use during the season immediately following incorporation into the soil. It is generally necessary to add nitrogen to soils containing compost to prevent the compost from robbing the soil of nitrogen and creating deficiency problems in plants grown in the soil. Adding 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. of 10% nitrogen fertilizer to each 100 lbs. (about 3 bushels) of leaf compost is recommended.

The preceding recommendations supply only the needs of the leaf compost. Most plants require an additional 1 to 3 lbs. of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for normal feeding. This nitrogen should be applied to the soil in addition to that applied in the leaf compost.

 

Other Uses for Leaf Compost

Leaf compost may also be used in potting soil. However no more than 25 to 30% of the potting soil should be leaf compost. Frequently leaf compost will continue to decompose. If more than 25 to 30 % of the potting soil is leaf compost there will be a significant volume reduction of the potting soil after 1 year.

Composting generally destroys most weed seeds contained in the compost material, however not all of them will be destroyed. Some are heat resistant and others will not be fully exposed to the high temperatures. If a completely pasteurized leaf compost is desired for potting soil, it will be necessary to heat it in an oven until the temperature of the center of the mass reaches 180*F and is maintained for 30 minutes.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT MULCH AND METHOD OF APPLICATION?

The Good Mulch:

1. Stabilizes soils and prevents erosion.

2. Helps soils retain moisture for plant use.

3. Improves soil structure and quality over time, if properly applied.

4. Looks great (sometimes).

5. Improves biological activity and mixes organic materials into soils.

6. Prevents weed growth. Keep in mind that the definition of a weed is “a plant out of place.” If we mulch to prevent weed growth, then what is it doing to the desirable plants?

7. Can be an effective herbicide in place of chemicals, cutting, mowing etc.

 

Types of Good Mulch:

1. Composted leaf mulch and other organic matter: Keep some leaves in the beds—plants shed leaves for a variety of reasons including as a way to feed and protect themselves. But for some reason, we spend too much time and energy removing them. I’ll never understand the fascination to keep our garden like our bathrooms. It’s okay to be neat, but don’t sterilize you garden by removing all the leaves. Find ways to hide them in your garden beds. They will improve biological activity and in many cases, it is much better than mulch. Go walk in the forest and uncover the duff layer (leaf layer) and take a look at what's happening! It’s alive!

2. Bark Mulch: It stays loose and does not bind. Bark mulch has a nice dark color and is a great background for plants and it does not fade over time. Bark mulch cultivates nicely into the soil and improves soil structure and drainage. It is usually innate and does not require nitrates to decompose. It is readily available and comes in easily handled 1 to 3 cubic foot bags in a variety of sizes from 4" to 3/8"

3. Soil Conditioner: This is usually the 3/8" and smaller screenings left over from sorting bark mulch. It is great for top-dressing beds and used as a component in planting mixes.

4. Cocoa Bark: Cocoa bark has a nice dark color, an interesting scent, does not bind, and mixes nicely into the soil and improves its quality. It is little on the expensive side.

5. Sweet Peet: This is the brand name of a specific type of mulch that is a combination of mulch, agricultural manure, soil conditioner, and humus. Look for it, I think it's amazing. Their website issweetpeet.com.

6. Leaves and other organic matter: Keep some leaves in the beds—plants shed leaves for a variety of reasons including as a way to feed and protect themselves. But for some reason, we spend too much time and energy removing them. I’ll never understand the fascination to keep our garden like our bathrooms. It’s okay to be neat, but don’t sterilize you garden by removing all the leaves. Find ways to hide them in your garden beds. They will improve biological activity and in many cases, it is much better than mulch. Go walk in the forest and uncover the duff layer (leaf layer) and take a look at what's happening! It’s alive!

7. Living Mulch: Ground cover plants like ivy, Pachysandra, and Liriope are great. It's better to invest in this mulch than something that needs replacing every season.

8. Peat Moss: A great material as long as you moisten it and mix it in with the soil and keep an eye on soil PH. It looks great, too.

9. Stone Mulch: This is a durable and long-lasting mulch that is good for areas where much can easily be washed away by heavy rains or in commercial applications such as parking lot islands. Additionally, stone mulch is great around pools because it does not blow into the pool causing the need for additional maintenance.

 

The Bad Mulch:

1. Too much mulch that is improperly applied in too thick of a layer kills plants and/or prevents proper growth.

2. Some mulch like hardwoods and shredded bark actually bind together, which prevents penetration of air and water.

3. Bad mulch reduces the biological activity in the soil. Where are the bugs and the worms in this mulch? If they can’t live in it, how does a plant?

4. A badly chosen mulch can changes the chemical composition of the soil. Mulch that is not fully decomposed draws nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down. Some mulch also leach micronutrients, like magnesium, that are harmful to plants.

5. Bad mulch can changes the soil structure and chemical makeup of the soil. Productive soils have variable percentages of five equal parts, including clay, sand, silt, organic matter, and biological components. Too much organic matter is never a good thing.

6. Mulch that is not clean and that contains garbage, weed seeds, or harmful pathogens.

7. Consider the cost of mulch. Determine what your annual mulch budget is and spend half on living mulches that will spread, reduce mulching, and increase plant material in the garden.

 

Types of Bad Mulches:

1. Wood Chips: A by-product from arborists, this is essentially someone else’s waste. It is best used if allowed to decompose for two to three years and mixed with other garden compost and organic fertilizers to aid in decomposition.

2. Double-ground hardwood mulch: These are usually wood chips that are immediately processed as the byproduct of tree removal, dyed, and made available in bulk. It's not the worst if the goal is to prevent weed growth or to stabilize soils and prevent erosion. But do not use it within the drip line of the plants or apply it around stems and trunks.

3. Cedar Mulch: Everybody loves it for the color and scent, but it has many of the same negatives as other hardwood mulches, with a tendency to bind together and mat down.

4. Rubber Mulch: Yes, I said it and I’ve seen it. It's just bad and really needs no explanation, so don’t use it. It is sold as an environmental solution to reduce the mountains of discarded automobile tires in this country. Is it really a good environmental solution to grind up tires and put that in our gardens? (No. Obviously.)

5. Plastic sheeting and fabric weed barriers: This should only be used on limited basis. It is best used for commercial purposes and for small scale jobs. It does prevents weed growth, but it is also unsightly and prevents water and air from entering the soil and therefore reduces biological activity.

 

The Ugly Mulch

1. Cone of Shame: This is when mulch is piled around trees and plant stems to make a cone. It smothers the plant, looks horrible, and actually brings water away from the plant. Instead, use mulch to make a plant saucer just outside the drip line to keep water where the plant needs it.

2. Hot Stuff!: If you use mulch that is not fully decomposed (too green) or piled on too high, the decomposition process will generate heat and I have seen gardens literally cooked with green mulch.

3. Anaerobic (sour) Mulch: Mulch should normally smell like freshly cut wood or cultivated soil, but sometimes it develops a strong toxicity that can kill plants. This happens when organic material is not rotated or turned over enough. When this occurs, the process may become anaerobic and produce phytotoxic materials in small but toxic quantities.

4. Using mulch to improve the appearance of a garden or landscape instead of using plants. I often see commercial landscapers with little experience and training use mulch as a quick fix to make a garden look good. Great for their bottom line and profits, but a bad investment for homeowners.

5. Mulch that Binds: Most perennials and annuals need lots of air and the ability to spread to thrive. Over mulching or using the wrong mulch prevents good, productive growth when the mulch binds.

6. Garbage Mulch: One person’s garbage is another person’s mulch. Be wary of organic and inorganic materials recycled from the waste stream and made into mulch. Not all recycling is good for the environment.

 

Types of Ugly Mulch

1. Dyed Mulch: Ugh! Nothing takes away from the beauty of architecture, plants, or landscapes than red or orange dyed mulch. Just don’t do it.

2. Plastic or Fabric: Bad for plant growth, but also unsightly in the long run and does not decompose or improve soil.

3. Rubber Mulch: Just say no.

4. Straw Hay: Used as a construction site soil stabilizer, straw made from barley, oats, rice, rye, and wheat hay have seed heads that will germinate and create a major weed problem.

 

In summary, using good mulch in moderation is the most effective application method. Combine mulch use with good garden design, practices, and know the makeup of your mulch and its origin. Don’t fall into the mulch trap as a quick fix to make your garden look good. Choose plants over mulch and get yourself a good cultivator to get rid of those weeds and massage the earth!

 

 

Our Composted Leaf Mulch

*Decrease water evaporation losses from the soil.

*Keep the soils cooler in hot weather and warmer in cold weather.

*Reduce alternate freezing and thawing of soils which can injure the fibrous roots of plants.

*Help prevent soil erosion by wind or water.

*Keep soils friable therefore easier to cultivate.

*Increase biological activity of earthworms and other soil organisms which will aerate the soil.

*Prevent soil spattering on leaves, flowers or fruits such as strawberries.

*Reduce soil compaction from rain and irrigation water.

*Help to control weeds.

*Presents a pleasing dark appearance.

Benefits of Adding Leaf Compost to Soil

Among the benefits derived from adding leaf compost to soils are:

*Drought damage to plants is reduced because of an increased water holding capacity of the soils.

*Soil tilth is improved making the soils easier to cultivate.

*Very small amounts of the 16 essential elements needed for plant growth are supplied.

*Adverse effects of excessive alkalinity, acidity, or 'over fertilization are reduced by the added buffering of the soil.

*The cation exchange capacity of soils is increased enabling the soils to hold more plant nutrients for longer periods.

*Decomposition of the organic matter produces organic acids which combine with iron and aluminum ions thereby reducing their potential toxicity to plants. This also makes more phosphorus available for plants because free iron and aluminum can tie up the phosphates.

*The added organic matter provides a food source for desirable soil micro organisms.

*When incorporated into the soil or used in a thin mulch 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick, compost helps seeds to germinate.

 

How much to order

Mulch should be applied 2" thick for top dressing and 4" thick for new beds.

1 yd. covers 80 sq. ft. 4" thick or 160 sq. ft. 2" thick.

 

You can pick it up.

Delivery charge anywhere in Livingston County.

(Delivery to counties other than Livingston for an additional cost.

Call for more information: 517-546-0011

 

Bader Acres offers the following products:

Products:

  • Leaf Mulch

  • Compost

  • 50/50 Compost and Topsoil - Screened

Our annual open house is canceled for 2021.