March 2, 2011

My Dynamically Accumulated Mulch Pile

Last fall, I started working on my mulch pile for this coming summer.

Leaf pile last fall.

Last summer, I ran out of mulch and the time to gather it. Buying it is just too expensive, so I ended up having to water more than usual, plus had a real battle with the weeds. I promised myself then, that I'd rake and gather a wheelbarrow load of leaves every day, all winter long. Well, I didn't. It was too wet, too cold, too snowy, too rainy, too windy; I'm full of excuses. Even so, I've made some progress...

Leaf pile now

I like to use tree leaves for mulch because:

  1. they're my zero mile sustainable resource
  2. they're free
  3. their decomposition is how forests get that rich, black, fertile soil. 

One of the things I did on my non mulch gathering days was to read. Of particular interest in regards to mulch, was some information in Edible Forest Gardens, Volume I particularly that on dynamic accumulators. These are plants which accumulate various nutrients through their root systems, and store them in their leaves, stems, etc. The nutrients are released back to the soil when the leaves drop or the plant dies. Obviously having these plants around would be useful for both garden and compost.

We have some huge oaks in the yard, so I gather a lot of oak leaves for mulch. These have a down side though, in that they acidify the soil. This means I need to keep an eye on the soil pH, and adjust if necessary. Of particular interest to me then, was the table on page 64, "Selected calcium accumulators and their accumulated nutrients." Most of us have soil with calcium deficiencies, as evidenced by blossom end rot on our tomatoes and peppers. I've always used a calcium spray to correct the problem, but the solution would be to build up soil calcium.

The table only listed about ten calcium accumulators, but I was pleased that several of the trees in my yard were on that list. Pecans and hickories accumulate not only calcium, but also potassium. Shagbark hickory and flowering dogwoods accumulate calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. I have all these trees! I started to make it a priority to rake and pile these leaves first.

Other plants on the list are plantains, which are plentiful here. Pulling and tossing these into the compost pile would be another way to contribute to my soil calcium. Also chives, chamomile, chicory, and horsetail, all of which I plan to grow.

Volume 2 of Edible Forest Gardens has extensive tables in the appendices, which list the multiple functions of various plants for polycultures, including dynamic accumulators. Unfortunately, that volume has mysteriously disappeared from our county library. :(

I wish I could say that my entire mulch pile is composed of leaves from dynamic accumulators, but there are still a lot of oak leaves in there. Still, at least I now know which trees to rake under first.


Lynda said...

The information in your post will come in handy for me. I have never composted my leaves...really...I get my compost by the truck and trailer load from the mushroom farm. But, after reading this post, I'm going to start composting the orchard leaves. Thanks!

Donna said...

Oh I am so jealous, you have a flowering dogwood! I haven't seen one since I left back home in 1979. They grew in the wooded area across the street from my grandmother's house and she always told me that when the dogwood bloom she knew winter was over and spring had truly arrived. I think of those blooms every year at springtime trying to figure out if they would be blooming or not.

-Heidi said...

I feel so lazy when I visit your blog! ~grin~

Leigh said...

Lynda, wow, that sounds like a lot of mulch, and from such a good source too. One down side to mulching with leaves though, is that they tend to blow away in a high wind! I'd love to have something like you have to mix them with. Some also take awhile to decompose (like the oak leaves), so running them through a shredder helps too.

Donna, I love dogwoods. We have one big one and I just planted two saplings. You're right, they are a lovely harbinger of spring.

Heidi, aw, LOL. At my age though, I have to keep busy!

Dani said...

Once our trees grow enough to drop plenty of weeds I'll be referring to your posting - thanks :-)

Theresa said...

Yes, I knew that about oka trees and pine needles too. Hydrangeas and lilacs I believe love acidic soil, along with Rhoddies and their cousins, but those are not edible. My only caution is be mindful of the soil minerals and what you are feeding your livestock. Often in this area they replant spent potato fields in hay, which is all well and good but the levels of nitrogen can make horses quite sick, so hay from potato fields is a no no where as cows can tolerate much more in their diets. As to goats, I really have no clue but again, minerals will affect milk...
Dona, we're lucky to have lots of wild dogwoods up here. Always a surprise to see them beautifully blooming against the back drop of our deep green conifer forest.

Leigh said...

Dani, I highly recommend the Forest Gardening Books. Chock full of good information.

Theresa, that's some good information to know. I'll have to research that. Our eventual plan is to have both fields sowed in good quality hay mix, and rotate for grazing and hay. I am planning to plant more veggies for the goats, so I will have to research this. Thanks.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

Every fall I tell myself I will gather and store more leaves. Then winter comes and I realize that I only managed to get a small pile. I really get lazy in the fall.

DebbieB said...

It never dawned on me that different leaves make better or worse mulch. I learn so much reading your blog! Alas, all I have is big hard magnolia leaves.

Nina said...

I'm a big fan of leaf mulch as well. While we have numerous compost bins here, my favourite method is to just dump leaves and grass clippings on the garden in the fall. They start composting over the winter and my mid summer they are rich soil. I also love that they smother the spring weeds!

Mr. H. said...

I never really thought about the tree leaves themselves being full of nutrients but of course it makes sense. It is interesting that you mentioned leaves as I have been thinking about them lately as well. This next year one of our goals is to work a lot harder at gathering them for the garden, especially after reading your post.:) Most of the leaves we are able to gather are maple leaves...are they listed in your book?

Seeking Serenity said...

My b/f showed me a blog you will LOVE! it's about another couple doing what you do there.

Anonymous said...

You might think twice about planting horsetail. It has extremely deep roots and will come up everywhere and anywhere and takes very little to establish itself. The books sound excellent - can you get the 2nd volume through interlibrary loan?

Sharon said...

Hubby and I have become very interested in Edible Forest Gardens. We will have to find those books. Have you seen the BBC Natural World: Farm for the Future? It's a facinating documentary about forest farming.

Susan McShannon-Monteith said...

Wow piles of mulch not covered by 3 feet of snow and daffodils too.
Mulch has a tendency to break down pretty fast here with the snowy winters... sometimes I give a little help with a straw underlay and the mulch on top.
The straw breaks down over the season but it seems to extend the life of the mulch.
Susan x

Julie said...

I started two compost bins last fall and they are doing pretty good even as cold as its been. That book sounds like a good one!

Woolly Bits said...

we only collect the leaves from areas, where we don't really want them (at the time they come down that is), flower and veggie beds etc. the rest stays where it falls, because this way the trees and shrubs "fertilize" themselves... luckily most of our large trees are ashes and some maple, which rot down quickly - oak and some others take ages to fall apart! might not be the best way, but it doesn't take time away from other jobs:))

Alla said...

Boo Hoo!! I don't have any trees but a couple of little ones. Your pile of leaves look wonderful to have. It was very interesting to see the different nutrients from different leaves though.

Lisa said...

Hi Leigh,
I've been visiting your blog for a few months now and always learn something new and/or something to "think about".
We live on 5 acres in the SC upstate mountain area on land of clay and rocky soil coupled with forested hardwoods. Needless to say, we have lots of leaves too! I tried your suggestion of dried leaves for bedding for our chicken coop this past year and rye grass as a winter cover crop for our garden.
Thank you for sharing your research and knowledge with us and I always enjoy your blog!

Leigh said...

Jane, so glad to know I'm not the only one with this problem! LOL

DebbieB, it wouldn't have occurred to me either. We have a big magnolia too, and you're right about those leaves. I haven't found a use for them yet, unless it's running them through the shredder first.

Nina, that's an excellent idea. I will definitely try that once I get some designated planting places, i.e. beds.

Mike, sugar maple is listed on the calcium accumulator table. They accumulate calcium and potassium. Other than that, that information would probably be in volume 2.

Peaceful, I appreciate the link!

Evelyn, sounds like horsetail would need to be a contained plant for me. I use it in my calcium tea, so would love to have access for that and mulch. Not too sure how well it will grow here though.

Sharon, I haven't seen that documentary. I'll have to see if I can find it online somewhere. Forest farming and gardening is a fascinating topic.

Susan, my only experience with straw was disastrous, as it still contained a lot of seed which sprouted all over my garden! Would love to have a source for real straw, with seed heads removed.

Bettina, I'm with you! Leave some of them as natural mulch where they'll do the most good!

Alla, herbs might be your answer. There are a lot of smaller plants that can be used the same way.

Lisa, thank you for visiting and for the kind comment! So you're in the southern Appalachian area too. That clay and those rocks certainly do create a challenge, don't they!

Anonymous said...

There is so much to learn about the leaves, the ph, the nutrients in them...The main tree in my area is the maple, and I usually just mow them along with the lawn in the fall. I stopped raking leaves a long time ago, mind you, I'm not really gardening yet. Good info, thanks!

Mr. H. said...

Excellent, thank you for looking.:)

Tom Stewart said...

I wanted to write and tell you that I too collect leaves of all kinds. But I have zero trees on my place, so I have to depend on other people to rake and bag thiers for me. I use the leaves for mulch and Worm bedding.
I also have to watch the PH levels (more so for the bedding!) and the way I handle is I run EGG SHELLS thru a blender with water to a fine powder and let it dry befor adding it to the compost, mulch and bedding. This breaks down farly fast and keeps the PH near 5 to 6 %. Try it, it might work for you too!

Leigh said...

Rain, it's makes gardening a fascinating subject, doesn't it? I like mowing them to shreds too. That way they can mulch their own trees! The other things I do with leaves is use them as chicken litter, and in the chicken yard. The chickens love to dig through them.

Mr. H you're welcome. I need to look further in to that as well, as I have a silver maple and a Japanese maple in the yard.

Tom, thank you for that! I saw a pH meter at the store the other day, and am considering getting one of those. I've read of several other bloggers who volunteer to take their neighbors raked leaves off their hands. Great idea. Anyway, thanks for the tip.

Country Jane said...

Great idea! Too bad I have no trees on my property except the ones we planted! Perhaps shingles work? We have lost plenty of those in the wind. hehe

Jane in Alaska