Putting Leaves to Work

The soil in my first garden at Upakrik Farm in 1991 was mostly hard clods of silt. Because I have added liberal amounts of compost over the past 19 years, my soil is now loose, friable and highly productive. I attribute the change entirely to the use of compost.

Ninety percent of the leaves that I rake become mulch under my shrubs and in the flower gardens. The remaining leaves go to the compost pile. To hasten their composting, I run the lawn mower through the pile of leaves, grinding them into smaller pieces. Ground leaves also take up less space than whole leaves, so I can put more leaves in my compost. I use so many that I drive my truck through the streets of Deale and collect others’ bagged leaves for my own compost.

While I am dumping leaves in my compost bin, I am also sprinkling them with water. I lay a layer a foot thick or so of loose leaves, followed by an inch of compost from the previous year, then water thoroughly.

When I am out of compost, I substitute this mixture: a shovel full of rich garden soil added to four gallons of water plus a quarter cup or so of cheap Octagon dish detergent and a cup of urea fertilizer. I generously slop this mixture over the layer of leaves before applying another layer of leaves and water.

My compost bin is five feet by six feet and five feet high. I fill the bin as high as possible because I know that within three weeks it will have settled at least two feet, allowing me to add more compost.

Within a few days, temperatures rise within the compost pile. It is not uncommon to have temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above ambient within five to seven days.

For a compost pile to function properly, keep it moist at all times. Wet it down at least weekly. As temperatures rise within the compost pile, water is lost through evaporation. 

Dumping your dirty, greasy dishwater on the compost pile also stimulates composting. Turning the compost pile occasionally during the winter results in more uniform compost. However, as I get older, I now leave my compost pile alone until I am ready to use it for hilling potatoes, growing in the garden or mulching the asparagus. I use my compost mostly in the vegetable garden.

Any Hope for Winter-Damaged Conifers?

Dear Bay Gardener:

My gorgeous line of Leyland cypress trees — over 20 feet high — sustained considerable damage last winter. I’ve had two estimates for how to treat them, and they want to do entirely different things. I’m afraid if I keep calling for more estimates, I’ll just get more different diagnoses. Want to break the tie?

One company wants to tie up the branches hanging down and trim four to five feet off the tops, saying they will fill in.

The other company wants to hand-prune hanging branches to help them rise up and improve the look.

What’s your prescription?

–Lynn Whiteall, by email 

A: You should have taken action this spring. 

Even then, the prognosis wouldn’t have been good. Pruning back the top of the Leyland cypress will only make the top denser. Removing the lower branches will only result in bare bottoms because, as with all conifers, the plant is unable to regenerate new branches. If the bottom branches are drooping, tying them upright is only a temporary solution because as soon as the ties are removed the branches will droop again — regardless if they are tied up for only one year or five. The branches were partially broken, which is permanent damage.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at [email protected] All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.