This is about the most fun part of gardening: Every fall, folks rake the leaves off their lawns and bag them up into little biodegradable brown paper bags and set them on the curb. My husband and I note their location, and after it gets dark, we drive up, leap out like a two-person Chinese fire drill, load them into his Honda Element, and speed away into the night.
We feel like thieves, getting something for nothing after somebody else has done all the work. But if we don’t get them, the city pays to pick them up and mulch them. I figure I’m saving the city some tax dollars and creating Eden for free.
Once you get the leaves, you can spread them over the flowerbeds right away, or you can go according to the book and wait until the first real frost forces the plants into dormancy. There’s a theory about why to wait, and I can’t remember what it is. I’ve tried mulching before and after the first hard frost, depending on the schedule of my day job, but I’ve never noticed that it makes a difference.
I have noticed that having stacks of brown paper lawn bags all over your porch waiting for hard frost lends a kind of Tobacco Road-esque air of redneck je ne sais quoi to your yard. My yard doesn’t need any more redneck je ne sais quoi than it already has.
What kind of leaves are good?
When Bob and I go on our nocturnal autumn leaf raids, we even take a flashlight, to make sure we’re not wasting our energy stealing bags of little sticks that will never rot into mulch. We open each sack and check to see what kind of leaves is in it.
What you want are leaves that will rot quickly. This may seem counter-intuitive: garden centers at big box hardware stores are stacked high with bags of mulch that are touted as long-lasting. You do not want this. Here’s why:
First of all, you’re mulching to improve soil tilth: to add organic matter to your soil. The earthworms and leaf-rotting bacteria eat the leaves from the bottom layer, and work the organic matter into your soil for you. The faster stuff rots, the faster it becomes humus in your soil.
Second of all, when mulch gets old, it gets all sun-faded and looks cruddy. It’s no big deal to add more, especially when it’s free in the first place.
Third, you’re mulching to conserve water, and insoluable mulch is like gravel. It probably does help retain moisture in your soil, but not much.
Fourth, and maybe most important: They actually cut down cypress trees that are hundreds of years old to grind them into mulch. This is just wrong.
The best kind of leaves
Here’s the test: When you crumple leaves, they should feel more like tissue paper than the glossy heavy cover of a magazine. You want tissue paper kind.
I am happiest when I look into a sack and find hackberry leaves. They feel like paper towels, and lots of times they’re already starting to tear into pieces. If somebody has used a leaf vacuum, they’re even better, already chewed up. Hackberry leaves from a leaf blower make a perfect soft, fluffy blanket that keeps the perfect amount of water in the soil it covers and breaks down quickly. While it lasts, it even looks good. And it won’t blow away.
Maple leaves are also usually soft. Plus, when you first dump them out of the sack, they smell like maple syrup.
Any kind of soft leaf is ideal. If you find ginkgo leaves, they make good mulch, but beware: They’re so flat they really pack into a bag, making it three times the weight of a bag of regular old crinkly leaves. Be careful lifting bags of gingko leaves.
If we find a really leathery leaf, such as magnolia or oak, we’ll leave it at the curb. We will take oak if that’s all we can find. Magnolia, probably not.
We’ve also used pine needles — they rot faster than you might expect.