Soon we can look forward to shorter days and a much-anticipated respite from the summer heat. Like most people in the United States, we South Texans call this time of year fall, so-named for the leaves that some landscape perennials will shed as part of their winter survival strategy.
While the shedding of their leaves means that deciduous plants are about to go on an involuntary winter diet, a veritable buffet will befall a few trillion hungry soil-borne bacteria and fungi. As this windfall of detritus enriches the soil with a population explosion of microscopic creatures, a host of other small animals such as mites, sowbugs and beetles will move in to clean up. Birds recognize this as an opportunity to unearth a steady supply of beetle protein tucked away under the decomposing organic matter.
In an effort to maintain a tidy lawn, we often make the mistake of raking everything up and hauling it off to an already overburdened landfill. This removal of organic matter robs your landscape of valuable nutrients.
While three to five percent can be expected in the eastern part of Texas, most urban soils only contain around one percent of soil organic matter by volume. Composted organic matter aerates the soil, increases its water and nutrient holding capacity and creates a rich environment for plant root growth.
Increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil is easy to accomplish. Rather than raking up all of your leaves this fall, use a mower with a mulching blade to chop them into tiny pieces. The force of a properly setup mower will literally inject new life into your soil.
If there are too many leaves for your mower to contend with, put them in a compost bin or rake them into a corner of the lawn. Place an old piece of carpet or plywood on top of the mass of leaves, occasionally adding water and turning the pile to speed up decomposition. Don’t place the composting material against plant stems, fences or the side of your home.
Chopped leaf litter can be used as topdressing which will slowly decompose to feed nearby plant roots. So when you plant out your violas, ornamental cabbages, and snapdragons for a little fall color, may I recommend that you plant them in a bed of chopped up leaves.