Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

I need an editor!!  I recoiled in horror when I looked over my last column and saw the following sentence:  “A perfect solution for leaf removal and mulching is to collect the leaves and use them as mulch.”  Leaf mulch is great but (and this is a big but) my statement lacked the important qualifier “shred them”.

Unshredded leaves are too heavy and can smother the plants as they try to emerge in the spring.  Even if they manage to push through the leaves, the wet heavy leaf mulch takes too long to break down and becomes an unsightly mess. Shredded leaves however are another story.  They provide the perfect mulch that will hold in moisture, deter weeds, look nice and help regulate warmth (or cold) depending on what you are after.

Mulch is a topic that can inspire serious landscape designers and gardeners to wax on for hours. In some hushed conspiratorial tones we all bemoan one thing. Now, I don’t want to hurt any feelings here, but (it is fact folks) in the company of serious professionals we all agree that dyed red mulch is a travesty.  Just say no to red mulch! There, the secret is out of the bag.

I personally take it a bit further and think that all dyed mulches should be avoided. Yes, I know that recently the dyed to look “natural” brown mulch has become popular.  I even know a designer who uses it! But don’t fool yourself: This “natural” color will leach the dye into the soil and discolor your skin. In general, wood chips are not great mulch. know-maintenance-garden

Recently, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and heard Roy Diblik, the author of The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, give an inspirational talk. Roy stated, “There is not a plant on earth that evolved living in a pile of wood chips.”  He reinforced my design philosophy, which is to plant close enough together to eliminate the need for mulch or heavy weeding after the first year or so, while the plants get established. Roy is also a huge proponent of shredded leaves, to help in those establishing years. He is such a huge proponent of this that he encouraged the town of Fontana, Wisconsin to start making leaf mulch from the leaves they collected, turning an ongoing expense into a profit center. Now the lucky guy can buy this quality mulch close to home!

He is terrific, and I suggest that you put this book on your holiday list if you are interested in the coolest way to create beautiful, low-maintenance, gardens.

“But what should I do?” you ask. As we have no mass-produced shredded leaf mulch sources here, I find myself in this quandary as well.  Frankly, I tend to stick to the basics. I like to use weed-free compost/topsoil for planting and then just pluck out the weeds that blow in until the plants fill in.  But sometimes good old mulch is just the thing. When I need it, I like to use bark mulch which is much quicker to break down and looks nicer than wood chips as well. If you are going to use wood mulch, it is best if it is double-ground and not in larger pieces. The coarser the chips, the longer they take to break down and that process steals valuable nitrogen from the soil.  One exception: I like to use larger wood chips for soft paths when stone or gravel is not appropriate for the situation.

Since we can’t buy shredded leaves from the town of Andes or anywhere else around here for that matter (hmmm, seems like something that could be a smart revenue generating idea for some village), that leaves (pun intended) one solution. Shred your own leaves.  It is imminently possible but does require a leaf shredder and a bit of work. Take care in choosing a leaf shredder! This is not the time to skimp on cost. I have read lengthy debates on the subject in web discussion groups without convincing conclusions. The main key is the power of the machine and how it spits out the leaves. Without sufficient power it chokes and sputters on wet leaves or, if the leaves are dry, it makes a dusty mess.  I have been considering getting a good one that will make nice mulch reliably and quickly, and plan on spending about $500!  If I do so, expect the full report!  For lighter home usage, there are many on the market for less than $200.

Much ado about mulch!~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.