Leaves in garden beds?

zahzeen(5)October 15, 2009

OK, next stupid question. Usually, I have cleared all the leaves from the lawn and other areas and the garden beds are filled with weeds. Last year, I left the leaves over the winter and cleaned them up in the Spring. In the areas I wanted to plant flowers I noticed that after clearing the leaves, there were few or no weeds. I thought I'd do the same this year but have since planted a bunch of perennials I bought on sale this month. The pamphlet I got from Bluestone's suggests in mulching for winter protection "We not recommend it except for extreme northern gardeners who don't have reliable snow cover ....If in doublt our advice is don't....Many, many more plants are lost to smothering and rotting than to temperature extremes .....Leaves and grass clippings are bad". Maybe leaving the leaves in over the winter was part of the reason I had so much trouble getting things to grow in this space and not such a great idea for this year.

Oh boy, I've been throwing anything organic including leaves and vegetable plants that are done with their production right into the beds and now I find it's bad. Please let me know what you think about mulching and leaves in garden beds over the winter in New England. I still have time to clean up my mess! Thanks.

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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

There is a big difference between 'summer' mulching and 'winter' mulching. Bluestone is advising against winter mulching, and my experience agrees with theirs. Covering the plants entirely isn't a good idea in areas that do the freeze-thaw-freeze dance. Summer mulching, OTOH, is covering the bare earth between plants with organic matter. That can be done now, with one big caveat. It can attract voles that can eat the plants over the winter.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2009 at 2:03PM
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I do mulch my beds in winter, but not over the tops of plants or even right up against the base. I also tend to use ground up leaves or other small-textured material, not full-sized leaves. I do sometimes have problems with voles, but I have issues with them in unmulched areas as well since they burrow under the snow and eat plants.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2009 at 11:48PM
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terrene(5b MA)

The location of your garden bed and the type of soil you have are factors, as well as the plants themselves. Upland? Wetland? Sandy soil or clay? Trying to grow western species that require gravelly soil? These factors will make a huge difference in how well the plants survive the winter.

Generally, I would go ahead and use mulch in the garden bed, but if your drainage tends to be slow, keep it pulled back a bit from your new plantings. If your drainage is poor, I wouldn't mulch much at all. In such cases, people often create raised beds or mounds for the plants to grow.

My soil is sandy loam, and this is an upland lot, so water tends to drain well. I leave the leaves in most of the garden beds over the winter. This usually works very well, and the perennials come through the winter fine. This past Spring, however, I was really bummed when most of the beautiful huge winter-sown Digitalis clumps mostly rotted over the winter. I had planted them in the wettest bed in the yard (wet being relative). Never thought crown rot would be a problem in this yard!

    Bookmark   October 16, 2009 at 9:38AM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

I use a shredded leaf mulch in the winter. However, I don't put it down until usually December. For one thing, my oaks shed their leaves so late that's usually when I'm done shredding (or it snows, whichever comes first - and it usually snows before I finish, lol) and secondly, I do have a vole problem, so I like to wait until the ground is frozen.

Also, I give priority to my cutting beds and vegetable garden, where the beds are empty. I like to get the ground covered for winter. In some beds, I also have a cover crop, so I usually mulch more lightly there.

Then if time, weather, and my shredded leave supply permits, I will mulch my perennial beds, being sure to leave room around the plants. If I don't get it all done and some perennial beds are unmulched, I'm not too worried. I find that most of the perennials do well and come through in the spring.

And since my leaves seem to fall throughout the winter and then more in spring (those oak leaves just don't seem to want to come down!) I usually have some matted leaves in spring to remove anyway. I'm still not sure whether these whole, wet-by-spring, matted leaves are good or bad for the garden...


    Bookmark   October 16, 2009 at 11:47AM
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asarum(z6 Boston)

"Maybe leaving the leaves in over the winter was part of the reason I had so much trouble getting things to grow in this space and not such a great idea for this year."

I think the previous posters have given you a clearer picture of what Bluestone meant. I just wanted to add my two cents about the value of organic matter for soil.

My yard does not produce enough leaves for my gardening needs so I drive down the street at this time of year looking for bags of leaves that others have left for curbside pick-up. I put these through my leaf grinder and lay down a not very thick layer on all my beds. I don't wait until after the ground freezes, but rather as I have time. My major aims is to protect the soil and to work in alliance with the worms to keep incorporating organic matter into the soil.

If you piled up vegetative matter in empty beds, you didn't harm those beds, you protected them from winter winds blowing soil away or water washing it away. It you have room for a compost bin or pile you may want to start one.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2009 at 12:59PM
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Thanks everyone for your experience and advice. After the last comment I found the composting forum on GardenWeb and read through several of the FAQs. Now I have to figure out how to mulch the leaves - I do have a paper shredder (only kidding). There are several commercial gardeners around here that clean up other people's lawns. Maybe I can get mulched leaves from them - they all seem to have big mulching machines on their trucks. As for my own leaves, raking can be fun(?). I've started a composting bin with a big plastic bin I had. My grandparents used to put their vegetable refuse, egg shells, coffee grinds and banana peels in their garden and of course my siblings and I thought they were nuts. Only goes to show how smart they really were.

Thanks again. Any other suggestions, I'd love to hear them. I was all ready to go out and buy mulch at Lowes and very heavily spread it around all my new perennials to protect them this winter. My perennials and I are very glad for your input.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2009 at 6:18PM
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terrene(5b MA)

Zahzeen, another thought. I have heard that the freeze-thaw cycle that much of New England experiences during the winter can cause the soil to heave during the winter, and push perennials up and out of the soil, exposing the roots. This would be more likely to occur in garden beds that are poorly drained and with newly planted perennials whose roots have not yet taken hold well. The theory in that case, is to allow the ground to freeze and THEN mulch heavily, which helps to maintain a constant soil temperature and prevent the freezing/thawing.

Again, this would depend on the specific conditions of your gardens and your climate. In my garden beds, I've not had this problem, even though I allow the leaves to fall and mulch heavily before the ground freezes. Maybe because the mulch enables the soil to freeze slowly but steadily? Or maybe because of the overall well-drained conditions, despite some frost in the ground.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2009 at 6:39PM
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runktrun(z7a MA)

It sounds as though you are coming to realize there is no one correct answer for many garden questions as the growing needs in your garden can be as individual as you are. Often gardening decisions can be making a choice between two evils, for example because I don't have much snow cover during the winter frost heaving can be a big problem so winter mulch would be helpful but I also have a troublesome slug and snail population that like to winter over in all that mulch! I think you will come to find that the trial and error (yes you will lose some plants) in gardening can be exciting. Katy

    Bookmark   October 17, 2009 at 8:08AM
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I've asked a lot of questions (from when is the first frost to the one I haven't asked "is there a difference in coffee grounds if they are regular or decaffinated?" - LOL) and everyone has been very helpful. Many of the answers come back as "it depends...." and the most precise answer is really based on my particular circumstances. I am certainly learning a lot through the trial and error method. Thankfully, the veterans at this forum have shared their opinions and experiences to help me make less errors as I go through different trials. I do appreciate all the input as it makes it better to hear what others in the area have also gone through so I can amend my trials based on their advice. Which brings me to my next question - can I please still be a newbie another year and get away with asking these questions? Thanks all.

    Bookmark   October 17, 2009 at 2:07PM
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