Trowel & Error

Did you leaf 'em behind?

That leftover fallen foliage can still make mulch

By Nancy Crowe

Did you "leaf" your lawn behind in the fall? Master Gardener Nancy Crowe has tips on how to turn them into this spring's mulchy goodness.

As winter thaws into spring, autumn is a distant memory — that is, until the snow melts to reveal all the leaves that sat there over the winter. They may be scattered over the lawn, already turning to mulch. They could be bunched up in sodden, yucky piles along fences and flowerbeds or in mounds by the curb.

Even the best meteorologists and the Old Farmers’ Almanac cannot be 100 percent accurate about when and how quickly the leaves will fall or what other weather events may throw leaf pickup for a loop. Sending out those trucks and crews requires some planning, and city officials must time it all based on their best estimates. 

It would be nice, even amusing, if that last leaf in your yard could fall and make its way to the curb just as the pickup crews are arriving. Last fall, however, trees took their sweet time dropping their leaves for the season. Then weather delayed pickup for some areas, especially on the south side — though residents could still bag leaves and call 311 for pickup.

I talked about leaves with Frank Suarez, director of public information for Fort Wayne’s Division of Public Works and City Utilities, just before the city had to turn its attention to the snow we got in early January. Catch-up leaf pickup runs were still a possibility.

“If we get an extended stretch of good weather, we will try to hit the southside neighborhoods that were the most impacted by the late falling of the leaves. But that really depends on the weather,” he said. “We will make an attempt to do that through about April.” 

Bagged leaf pickup will not be available in March, he said — but people can still mulch un-raked leaves with a mower. 

Ricky Kemery, Allen County Extension Educator for Purdue University, said he thinks homeowners should make the most and best use possible of their leaves. After all, they’re free fertilizer. You don’t have to read labels or measure anything. 

“Just leaving leaves and shredding them with a mulching mower saves one fertilizer application for the lawn,” he said. However, he added, if the leaves are so deep as to obscure the grass, some have to be removed and used elsewhere. He suggests letting the leaves dry a bit and then shredding them. (Make sure there are no walnut leaves in the mix due to black walnut toxicity. See Purdue publication HO-193 for more information on that.)

Here are his ideas:

• Use them as mulch around trees and shrubs, keeping the mulch 6-12 inches away from the trunk or base. 

• Add the leaves to a compost pile.

• Work them into your existing garden or landscape areas.

• Create a new garden bed with a foot or two of leaves, newspaper, peat moss and manure; it will all break down into great soil.

• Use dry leaves inside a cage made of hardware cloth around tender plants to protect them. 

There’s no good segue from leftover leaves to indoor plant pests, so let’s just forge ahead. By now, our houseplants have spent months indoors in warm, dry air. We’re starting seeds and making sure the little seedlings are strong enough for their upcoming mission. They all seem to need water — or it seems like they should — so we water. 

Before we know it, we have an invasion of fungus gnats. These little menaces like to hover around houseplants, prowl in the potting mix and dive-bomb pets and people. Darlene Kittle, who taught my Purdue Master Gardener class on houseplants, said over-watering — the No. 1 cause of houseplant death — is usually the cause. Too much moisture in the soil makes the roots rot, which turns on a little neon “All U Can Eat” sign for the gnats and their voracious larvae. Her advice: Cut back on the watering, and make sure the potting soil has enough perlite to drain well. 

Spider mites also thrive in dry, warm conditions. They feed on the underside of leaves, causing mottled discoloration, and make their way from stem to stem via telltale fine webbing. You can’t really see them until you hold a piece of white paper under a discolored leaf and tap the leaf. Likely as not, you’ll see tiny moving specks on the paper. Resist the urge to run away screaming. Or don’t resist — just run to your cupboard or the store for insecticidal soap, read the label and apply.

Nancy Crowe

Posted Fri, 03/21/2014 - 1:14 pm