You could think of all this falling foliage as just another mess to clean up, but that would be a shame. Dry leaves are a powerhouse of nutrients for your soil, containing twice as much mineral content as manure. Decomposed leaf matter, often referred to as leaf mold, can also improve soil aeration and drainage while providing a feast for all the good microbes doing their work underground. And all it takes is just a bit of effort to turn that pile of dry brown into garden gold.
To keep all of your beautiful leaf pieces in one place, I suggest a simple structure. Step 1: Unroll about 6-8 feet of chicken wire and bend the wires from the two cut ends together to form a ring. Step 2: Fill the ring with leaves. I told you it was easy.
When you're ready to build your leaf pile, keep a few things in mind:
Use freshly fallen leaves as this is the stage when the nitrogen and mineral contents are highest
Shred or chop up dry leaves before adding them to your compost pile to speed up decomposition. A basic chipper/shredder is a good tool for this. Or, if you still own a lawn mower (what?), you can run it over the leaf pile.
Avoid adding black walnut and eucalyptus leaves which contain a natural herbicide that can affect seed germination of other plants.
If you already have a composting system in place (you garden rock star!), you can also add a moderate amount of shredded leaves as a brown ingredient for your brown and green recipe.
On the other hand, if you're not ready to commit to building a leaf mold pile, we won't judge. Gather up those leaves and spread them at the base of your trees and shrubs as a layer of mulch to protect the soil from winter rain and cold. As with any mulch, you want to keep the leaves away from direct contact with the plant itself to avoid crown rot. In spring, rake the leaves back to allow the soil to warm up more quickly.
If what you're looking for is an excuse to party, leaf it to me. See what I did there? But seriously, in Japan, where I lived for a few years, the farmer I worked with would celebrate the falling of the leaves, known as ochiba, with friends and family. Everyone spent the day collecting leaves for compost and then shared a meal, and maybe a lot of beer and sake, around a roaring fire. Just one more reason to not kick those leaves to the curb.
by UC Master Gardener Cayce Hill
This article first appeared in the November 25 issue of the Morgan Hill Times.
You have these kitchen scraps – potato peels, lettuce leaves, coffee grounds, etc. – and you really don't want to put them in the garbage where they go to the land fill. Or put them down the garbage disposal. You think it's too much of a hassle to put them in the backyard compost pile (if you have one) with the matching of green material with brown material, and turning it once a week. What can you do with them?
You can start a worm bin and “recycle” your scraps into incredibly rich worm castings that you can use in place of expensive fertilizers on both indoor and outdoor plants. You can make your own worm bin using old recycling containers, or old fence boards, or you can purchase a commercial bin through a garden supply catalog. The County will assist you in starting a worm bin.
Contrary to popular belief, worms are really quite clean and the castings they leave – worm poop – is virtually odorless. Worms breathe through their skin, so they have a light mucus on them to keep their skin moist. This mucus is not slimy or dirty. In fact, it will kill e coli bacteria on contact.
The worms used for vermiculture – composting with worms – are NOT earthworms. They do not live in the soil. They live in decaying organic matter such as leaves. The common one used is the red wiggler or manure worm, Latin name eisenia foetada.
Worms are hermaphroditic – they have both male and female sex organs, but it still takes two worms to reproduce. They form a self-regulating population adjusted by the size of the worm bin and the amount of food provided.
So let's set up the worm bin. As a general rule, for the average household a bin with a surface area of 2 to 4 square feet is appropriate. It should sit off the ground and have are holes on all sides. It should be situated out of direct sun. Ideal temperature range for the worms is 55 degrees and 77 degrees. They can handle hotter and colder temperatures for short time periods. A garage works fine. Next you put in bedding material, about 4 inches of it. The easiest material to use in shredded newspaper. The Bay Area newspapers use recycled paper and soy-based ink for their news print. Do not use the glossy magazine inserts. The shred should be between 1/8” and 3/8” in width. If you have a super-secure shredder that turns your paper to confetti, don't use it. It will form paper mache and smother the worms.
Now the food goes in. Worms will eat most of your kitchen scraps. Exceptions are no meat or dairy, no oils, no citrus, no leaves or yard clippings, no soil, and no strong aromatics like garlic and heavy spices and peppers. Their digestive tract is like that of a chicken – a crop and a gizzard. They have no teeth. Therefore, they need coarse material in the crop and gizzard to grind up the food. Coffee grounds and ground up egg shells work just fine. Cover the food with additional shredded newspaper and moisten. This keeps out fruit flies. Feed the worms about 1 lb of food per square foot of surface area per week.
When you have built up a reasonable amount of castings (bedding and food gone, rich brown material in its place – this will take a while), it's time to harvest. Keep the castings and return the worms to the bin.
A source of red wigglers is Jerry Gach in San Jose. He can be reached at www.thewormdude.com. For more information about vermicomposting, call Santa Clara County ROTLINE: 408-918-4640, or on-line at http://cesantaclara.ucanr.edu/Home_Composting_Education/. Morgan Hill offers composting workshops in May and September where vermicomposting is covered in detail.