November 1, 2006

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Raking may be a chore, but leaves are a good source of organic matter and nutrients for the home landscape if managed properly. (Photo by Chris S. Corby)
  Fall leaves useful as mulch and compost

By Tara McKnight
Wichita County
Texas Cooperative Extension

With the leaves beginning to change around town, the task of raking leaves is on everyone's mind. Here are some useful ideas of what you can do with your leaves to make them work for you instead of sending them to the landfill.

Managing Leaves

The tree leaves that accumulate in and around your landscape represent a valuable natural resource that can be used to provide a good source of organic matter and nutrients for use in your landscape. It is an established fact that the trees in one acre of forest shed as much as two tons of leaves each fall. You may complain, as you lean wearily on a leaf rake, that your neighborhood outdoes any forest, but be thankful. Hang on to your leaves. And if your neighbors don't want them, hang on to theirs. It makes no sense to send valuable treasure to the dump. In forests, pastures and other natural settings, tree leaves and other organic wastes form a natural carpet over the soil surface which conserves moisture, modifies temperatures and prevents soil erosion and crusting. In time bacteria, fungi and other natural occurring organisms decompose or compost the leaves and other organic material, supplying the existing plants with a natural, slow release form of nutrients. You can, and should, take advantage of this same concept.

Options for Managing and Using Leaves

Leaves are truly a valuable natural resource! They contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air during the season. Therefore, leaves should be managed and used rather than bagged and placed at curbside to be picked up and hauled to landfills. There are four basic ways in which leaves can be managed and used in the landscape.

Leaf Management Mowing

A light covering of leaves can be mowed, simply leaving the shredded leaves in place on the lawn. This technique is most effective when a mulching mower is used. In fact, during times of light leaf drop or if there are only a few small trees in your landscape, this technique is probably the most efficient and easiest way to manage leaf accumulation. This is not recommended if you have more than just a few leaves on your lawn. You do not want the leaves to sit on top of your lawn though.

Leaf Management Mulching

Mulching is a simple and effective way to recycle leaves and improve your landscape. Mulches reduce evaporation from the soil surface, inhibit weed growth, moderate soil temperatures, keep soils from eroding and crusting, and prevent soil compaction. As organic mulches decompose, they release valuable nutrients for use by your landscape plants. Leaves can be used as a mulch in vegetable gardens, flower beds and around shrubs and trees. As an option to raking, a lawn mower with a bagging attachment provides a fast and easy way to shred and collect the leaves. Leaves that have been mowed or run through some other type of shredder will decompose faster and are much more likely to remain in place than unshredded leaves.

Apply a 3 to 6 inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs. In annual and perennial flower beds, a 2 to 3 inch mulch of shredded leaves is ideal. For vegetable gardens, a thick layer of leaves placed between the rows function as a mulch and an all-weather walkway that will allow you to work in your garden during wet periods. Mulches are especially beneficial when used around newly established landscape plants, greatly increasing the likelihood of their survival.

Leaf Management Soil Improvement

Leaves may be collected and worked directly into garden and flower bed soils. A 6 to 8 inch layer of leaves tilled into a heavy, clay soil will improve aeration and drainage. The same amount tilled into a light, sandy soil will improve water and nutrient holding capacity.

A recommended strategy for using leaves to improve soil in vegetable gardens and annual planting beds is to collect and work them into the soil during the fall. This allows sufficient time for the leaves to decompose prior to spring planting. Adding a little fertilizer to the soil after working in the leaves will hasten their decomposition.

Leaf Management Composting

Knowledge of composting dates back to the early Greeks and Romans. The Arabs kept the science of composting alive during the Dark Ages, and it continued throughout the Renaissance. From Shakespeare's Hamlet comes the line "spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker!" In America, the value of composting was recognized by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Carver. Today, knowledge and interest in the science of composting is increasing dramatically. Whether an ancient art or a modern science, composting is a useful and environmentally sound gardening practice for you.

Herbal gardening enthusiasts will enjoy Susan Wittig Albert's mysteries.


The garden reader:
Murder most herbal

By William Scheick
University of Texas at Austin

The China Bayles fiction series by Susan Wittig Albert:

  • Thyme of Death (1992)

  • Witches' Bane (1993)

  • Hangman's Root (1994)

  • Rosemary Remembered (1995)

  • Rueful Death (1996)

  • Love Lies Bleeding (1997)

  • Chile Death (1998)

  • Lavender Lies (1999)

  • Mistletoe Man (2000)

  • Bloodroot (2001)

  • Indigo Dying (2003)

  • Unthymely Death and Other Garden Mysteries (2003)

  • Dilly of a Death (2004)

  • Dead Man's Bones (2005)

  • Bleeding Hearts (2006)

  • Spanish Dagger (2007)

The garden a place of beauty, tranquility, meditation. A special place for precious time-outs from life's vexations.

So we fantasize even as we toil to keep our gardens in good order.

Unfortunately, our special garden patch is less peaceful than we might care to admit. There is the recurring need for hard maintenance work. There is also the all-too-sorry aftermath of draught and pillaging insects. And there is the ongoing struggle between plants silently contending with each other for more space and light. Some "greedy" pants, it seems, know no bounds.

Even so, most of us would not willingly associate our garden plots with murder plots. Expressing homicidal impulses or burying bodies in the garden may be the stuff of fiction and films, but we'd prefer to think of our gardens as little havens of hope and joy where life cyclically renews itself with a little help from us, of course.

Susan Wittig Albert, a Central Texas author, appreciates this distinction in her many whodunits featuring China Bayles. In this series of novels human mayhem happens elsewhere. Gardens are for connecting to others, for healing and regeneration.

China Bayles is an ardent gardener, cook and landscaper who lives in Pecan Springs, a fictional small town located between Austin and San Antonio. There China owns both an herb store and a teashop.

A former Houston criminal attorney, China is also an amateur sleuth who takes on unsolved mysteries. These mysteries usually concern local deaths, such as the murder of a Picklefest chairwoman in A Dilly of a Death and the demise of a rural landowner planning to profit from mineral rights in Indigo Dying. In Dead Man's Bones a discovery in a cave provides clues from the past that enable China to solve a recent misdeed.

In the course of her investigations China also deals with a variety of perennial domestic issues involving her husband, stepson, mother and best-friend, who is also her business partner. The secrets she uncovers close to home are often as difficult to penetrate and surprising as are the hidden motives behind the more overtly villainous crimes she solves as an amateur sleuth.

As the titles of the novels in this series indicate, herbs grown in China's garden and sold in her shops play a part in each story. China shares detailed lore pertaining to traditional herbal symbolism as well as information about the ornamental, medical and culinary uses of specific spices. China loves to cook with these aromatic plants and equally loves to disclose her herbal kitchen secrets.

Most of the books in the China Bayles series are currently available in mass-market paperback editions selling for $6.99. These stories will appeal to the herbal gardening enthusiast and to anyone else with a taste for well-seasoned mystery fare.

  The Compost Heap
Readers Respond

From Brian D. Townsend: "Can I add to the 'You know you're a serious gardener when'...when you run out of space for the new plants you just got, so you look under your fingernails!"

  Readers' Gardening Tips

"In the spring I find myself potting up a lot of plants, for plant swaps and for plant sales," writes David Barnett, President of the Arlington Organic Gardening Club. "I am one that does not like to lose  potting soil through the holes of the plastic nursery pots. So I use coffee filters, in all my one-gallon pots. The filters hold the potting soil in but let the extra water flow out. I prefer to use the brown filters, because they are not bleached like the white ones are."

Have a favorite gardening tip you'd like to share? Texas Gardener's Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will seed you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here's a chance to get published and be a garden stylist as well! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.

  Did you know...

In the United States, more tomatoes are consumed than any other single fruit or vegetable. Actually a fruit, it took a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1893 to make the tomato a vegetable.


  Upcoming Garden Events

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center hosts "The Amazing World of Dragonflies and Damselflies," with Dr. John Abbott, Ph.D. Thursday, November 2, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Explore the amazing world of dragonflies and damselflies with Dr. John Abbott. Through breathtaking photography, Dr. Abbott will review their habits, riparian habitats and the many wonderful species particular to central Texas. Lectures are free to the public. Parking lot opens at 6:00 p.m., speaker reception at 6:00 p.m., lectures begin at 7:00 p.m. No reservations are necessary, but seating is limited. For more information, contact

Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, 22306 Aldine Westfield Road (one mile north of FM 1960), Humble, will host a Chrysanthemum Sale, Friday and Saturday, November 3 and 4, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Enjoy the chance to purchase chrysanthemums for your home and garden. Many varieties will be on sale and the experts will be here to answer your questions about these wonderful plants. For additional information call (281) 443-8731, or visit

Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, 22306 Aldine Westfield Road (one mile north of FM 1960), Humble, will host a Chrysanthemum Program, Friday and Saturday, November 3 and 4, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Learn all about these versatile and beautiful plants. This program will coincide with the sale both days. For additional information call (281) 443-8731, or visit

The San Antonio Botanical Garden, 555 Funston, will host the Fall Garden Fair Saturday, November 4, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of the South Texas Plains. Family craft activities, Texas Native Trail scavenger hunt, and entertainment by Charro Jerry Diaz and family. Admission to the garden: $6 adults, $3 children 3-13, $4 students, military and senior citizens. Admission to the event is included with admission to the garden. For more information, contact (210) 829-5100 or visit

Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, 22306 Aldine Westfield Road (one mile north of FM 1960), Humble, will host "Lunch Bunch: Gardening 101," Wednesday, November 8, noon to 1 p.m. Get ready for spring by picking up tips on gardening basics like preparing a bed and choosing plants. Bring a sack lunch to enjoy. Call for reservations. For additional information call (281) 443-8731, or visit

The Texas Gourd Society will hold its 11th annual "Show and Tell" at the Waco Convention Center, Waco, November 11 and 12 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. The two-day show will include gourd artists, seminars, demonstrations and much more. Admission is $5 for adults; children under 12 free. For more information, visit

The San Antonio Botanical Garden, 555 Funston, will host "Coffee Day" Saturday, January 13, 2007, 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Just in time for the crisp wintry air, this annual family day event features coffee tastings and other exotic treats. Coffee Day is a celebration of tropical plants for edible pleasure and medicinal purposes, derived from the jungle. Admission to the garden: $6 adults, $3 children 3-13, $4 students, military and senior citizens. Admission to the event is included with admission to the garden. For more information, contact (210) 829-5100 or visit

Urban Harvest will host its annual fruit tree sale Saturday, January 20, 2007, 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at Emerson Unitarian Church, 1900 Bering Drive, Houston (West of Loop 610 between San Felipe and Westheimer). A pre-sale talk discussing the fruit trees available at the sale begins at 8:00 a.m. and continues until 9:20 a.m. There will be a large selection of citrus trees, as well as trees that produce peaches, plums, apples, pears, figs, pecans, grapes, blackberries, persimmons, and more. For more information on fruit varieties and directions to the sale, check the Urban Harvest website beginning in December.

The Highland Lakes Master Gardener Association will sponsor the Ninth Annual Hill Country Lawn & Garden Show March 31, 2007, at the Lakeside Pavilion in Marble Falls. It is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Free Admission and seminars. It features garden related vendors, demonstrations, a children's booth, raffle and seminars by Malcolm Beck, Bill Luedecke and the Antique Rose Emporium. For more information go to or call (325) 388-8849.

The Garland Organic Club meets the first Sunday of each month in the little red school house at 1651 Wall St., Garland. All interested gardeners are invited to attend. For more information, call (972) 864-1934 or (800) 864-4445.

Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7:00 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit

The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 676-4326 or visit

The Arlington Organic Garden Club meets from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month (except November and December) at the Bob Duncan Center, 2800 S. Center Street, Arlington. For more information, contact David at (817) 483-7746.

If you would like your organization's events included in "Upcoming Garden Events," please contact us at Garden Events.

  The New Book Of Salvias features 15 new species

Fifteen new species have been added to the revised edition of Betsy Clebsch's time-honored guide that covers more than 100 species of salvias in one colorful book. Blooming cycles, cultural practices and companion plants are listed. This is a great gift for those wishing to add low-maintenance plants to the landscape.

$31.97 plus shipping*

Order by calling 1-800-727-9020 or order on-line.

 *Mention Texas Gardener's Seeds when ordering by phone during the month of November and we'll waive shipping charges. (Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)

  Fiber Row Cover valuable year-round

Grow-Web encourages plant growth and development, and also provides protection from insects, birds, diseases and frosts. It is also air and water permeable and allows for ventilation. Grow-Web provides excellent protection to seedlings when applied directly to the seedbed.

 $30.64 per 12.3' x 32.8' roll (includes shipping!)

Order by calling 1-800-727-9020. Not available through on-line bookstore.

(Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)


Texas Gardener's Seeds
is published weekly. Suntex Communications, Inc. 2006. All rights reserved. You may forward this publication to your friends and colleagues if it is sent in its entirety. No individual part of this newsletter may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

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Publisher: Chris S. Corby Editor: Michael Bracken

Texas Gardener's Seeds, P.O. Box 9005, Waco, Texas 76714 ●