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Free Fertilizer

by Doug Pushard

When fall is in the air the evenings are cool and out here in lovely Santa Fe, the smell of pinion smoke is in the air, we are blessed with wonderful sunsets and spectacular fall colors. It is time for a little yard cleanup. Pruning trees and plants, cleaning the yard and maybe a little fertilizer on the plants before winter sets in. Raking up the fallen leaves and putting them in bags to be hauled away or blown on the street for others to deal with is a fall ritual.

Per a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), leaf litter will spike stormwater with nutrients. While at the same time we are carting our leaves away or letting them blow down the street to our stormwater inlets, we are also fertilizing our gardens and trees with expensive store bought nitrogen. Highlights of this study include:

Leaves are a significant source of phosphorus to urban stormwater.

Phosphorus and nitrogen were measured in basins with and without leaf removal.

Nearly 60 percent of the annual phosphorus yield comes from leaf litter in the fall.

Timely removal of leaf litter can reduce phosphorus concentrations by 80%.

The study concludes that cities should schedule timely pickup of this litter to reduce this runoff effect. However, why let the city have this litter when it can be your free fertilizer?

Our plants need constant fertilizer to thrive year after year. Many of us depend on our local nurseries for these soil amendments. Nature provides much of what we need. The aspen, apricot, peach, elm and cottonwood debris is sitting right there in our yards. Leaves and other plant clippings are packed with nutrients. Our plants draw up these nutrients from the soil during growing season, use some of it and then discard much of it in the fall. When properly added back to our soil it feeds worms, lightens heavy soils, helps sandy soils retain moisture, provides a layer of insulation for our plants and returns nutrients back to the soil.

There are several ways yard clippings can be added back to soil: layering, mulching or composting.

Layering can be done, but only lightly and with small leaves and plant debris. Adding too thick a layer of non-shredded material can block air and water from penetrating the ground and will be harmful. Mulching entails shredding the debris into small pieces which then allow water and air to penetrate. By cutting into smaller pieces with a shredder, mower or a shop vacuum these pieces of yard litter decompose faster. When properly shredded you can mulch up to 4”-6” deep. This not only adds nutrients back into the soil, it reduces the need to weed.

Composting is another great use of this material. Composting takes a little more work and attention but is a great way to use this plant matter. Non-meat food scraps, grass clippings, cardboard are also great additions to be into your compose bin. Do not use diseased plant matter. Although in some cases it can be used, it is far safer for this material to go to the dump in a sealed garbage bag.

So instead of throwing away this valuable yard waste, use it! It is yours and it is free. It provides valuable minerals back to your plants, contributes to a healthy soil, saves energy (reduces the number of trips to a nursery for fertilizer and decreases water requirements by increasing the soils water holding capacity), and best of all your plants will love it!






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