Got leaves? Then it’s time to recycle them

File photo. File photo.

It’s not all a jungle out there, and for that we should be grateful here in the red clay heart of Virginia. Ceaseless growth and decay below the equator harbors no winter sleep or spring awakening. Only deciduous forests of the middle latitudes change into seasons other than rainy or dry. In the northern hemisphere, fall’s fiery dance to dormancy and the ephemeral unfolding of spring are limited to a mere 6 percent of the earth’s surface: eastern North America, the British Isles, northwestern Europe and slivers of northeastern Asia.

It all comes down to leaves.

Cold nights trap last sips of sugar within the veins, a brilliant swan song revealed when chlorophyll fades with summer. Many people travel far to see this phenomenon and experience its dramatic beauty. Most leaves have fallen by now and the sugars and starches that didn’t make it back to the roots have rotted somewhere, somehow.

Fortunately, organic matter encased in plastic bags buried in landfills is less likely hereabouts since Panorama Farms—the region’s poster farm for small-scale sustainability—contracted with the city for its leaves, a prime component of their famous Paydirt compost. But don’t put all your leaves to the curb. Save some to use as mulch and amendment and to make compost of your own (see Primer).

Layers of leaves build up in a woodland to form a perfect humus which keeps the soil cool and moist while recycling nutrients. This natural cycle is broken when leaves are removed. For our native clay—the “red dirt” that says Virginia—there is no better amendment than leaves in some stage of decomposition.

Clay is full of iron and other micro-nutrients but its raw texture is like adobe mud wet or dry. Leaves impart a sponge-like water-holding capacity as well as lively micro-organisms that make for good plant health. Let a heap molder over winter at the edge of the woods or within a six-foot square of chicken wire. Spread in spring. Or use them as one of the layers of a compost pile. Mow or shred to reduce their volume, keep moist, and fork over several times to hasten rotting.

Beware copying landscaping practices that, while convenient for profit-making companies, are hardly good horticulture. Just because you see commercial crews do it does not mean it’s the best way to manage a living landscape. If you’re looking to make the transition from caretaker/property-owner to gardener, the first step is to stop treating leaves like trash and laying down mulch like new carpet.

The gardener’s task is to nurture soil and keep the messy life and energy of plants inside the charmed circle of regeneration. The gardener’s eye sees sterility in leaf-blown lawns pocked with trees erupting from volcano mounds and vast expanses of uniform brown beds with nothing green to mar their surface. The caretaker disposes of dirt and keeps things clean. Laudable goals, but treating the landscape like a house that needs cleaning is a disaster for the garden.

Cathy Clary is a gardening teacher and consultant; she tends ornamental beds and a kitchen and cutting garden at home in a hollow south of Charlottesville. Read more about her at, and e-mail her with questions at