Adding leaves to soil

craziekaren(4)March 23, 2009

Hi, I'm new to this site and have a question.

I started vegetable gardening again last year. For the last 5 years or more, the area has been covered in black plastic and wood chips to keep it from turning into a weed patch.

My results last year were far from desired. I'm revamping it to a version of square foot gardening. The area is raised about 6 inches, and extends 6 foot out from my house on the south side, and about 30-40 feet long. I have 2 of the 4 foot wide sections done, did them last fall.

When I redid them, I trench dug, filled the trench with leaves and turned the dirt from the next trench over the leaves. I plan to do the same with the rest of the sections this spring. I also added peat moss and perlite.

My question is, do I need to add anything extra to the soil to accomodate for the leaves decomposing in the soil? I understand decomposing material depleats the soil of nitrogen? Would alfalfa pellets be a good option?

I've not had the soil analyzed, I'm wondering if those meters work, or if I should get one of those kits that involves a liquid? I've never tested my soil before, and used to get fantastic results in this location.



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Hi Karen

I can show you a picture of what happened to a wheat field I planted in. There are notes on the picture, just drag your mouse over the picture and the boxes will appear with small explanations.

This also happened to me in 2008 in a different field after planting on top of the leaves again. Gonna do something different for 2009 I think. (duh)

It is my understanding that the N is just tied up decomposing the leaves thus making it unavailable for the plants.

As far as remedies, I'll leave that up to the gardeners.

Good luck


    Bookmark   March 23, 2009 at 7:34PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Would alfalfa pellets be a good option?

IMO (for Lloyd) yes, alfalfa pellets or alfalfa meal would be a good option. As alternatives consider some of the other items listed on the table linked below as several have higher nitrogen percentages than does alfalfa. Just depends on which you can find locally and at what cost.


Here is a link that might be useful: Sources of nitrogen

    Bookmark   March 23, 2009 at 8:38PM
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Since the peat moss has no nutrients, and since the soil bacteria will stay away from peat moss as long as possible (that is why it lasts in soils) and since those leaves, while they can be loaded with nutrients which are tied up until the soil bacteria chomp on themand release them, you will need to add something to feed your Soil Food Web.
That black plastic, which has been removed and thrown out I hope, would have kept any air exchange with the soil from happening so in your case tilling would be a good idea to incorporate some air, but what else can only be determined by a good, reliable soil test. Contact your local office of your University of Minnesota USDA Cooeprative Extension Service about having this done and to learn much more about your soil you can so these simple soil tests,
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer you soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.
to see what you have and what else you need to do to make that soil into the good, healthy soil you need to grow strong and healthy plants.

Here is a link that might be useful: UMN CES

    Bookmark   March 24, 2009 at 8:45AM
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Left over time, the soil will eventually come back to a balance if left alone. That is because as the soil organisms break down the carbon-heavy leaves, they convert the existing nitrogen into amonia, which will escape as a gas. However, as the organisms die out (from lack of oxygen, decomposing matter, moisture, etc.), their remains contain a great deal of nitrogen. So, in the long run, leaves can be a very good addition.

In the short term, not so much. You are going to have to treat the area as more of a compost trench rather than as a planting bed. As it is, it will probably lack available nutrients (that is nutrients that are available to vegetables). Introducing alfalfa pellets will start to heat things up again and get the composting going again, but this will actually tie up even more nutrients in the short term.

Personally, I would consider sifting the material to remove the large, woody leaf parts that are still in there. Mix in some mature compost, a nitrogen source (like seedmeal, blood meal, composted chicken manure, etc.), some dolomitic lime (not too much, just enough to help with the composting and worm population), and some soil from another part of the area to add some mineral structure. You should end up with a more fertile, airy, well draining soil like kimmsr is hinting at above.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2009 at 10:21AM
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WOW!! Thanks for the wonderful info Kimmsr! I already know my soil drains much much too quickly. Thats how I plant my tomatoes, in a hole about that size, and even the 3rd filling of water drains within half an hour, more like 15 min.

I thought I was doing the right thing last fall, putting all those leaves in, I'll think about digging them back out.

I also already know my worm population is almost nonexistant, been wondering what I can do to get some going this year, thought the leaves would also help with that?. Dolomite lime, I have lime, not sure if it's dolomite tho, and not sure if the bag is still readable. I know if I just get some and don't have what they need to survive, they'll just die again.

I have a compost barrel going, hopefully it'll be ready for some of the area yet this spring, it's a turning barrel my friend made for me. In the meantime, I think I can get compost from the local place where the leaves and such are taken, need to check into that. I have lots of leaves I collected last fall, I have them in bags. A master gardener who used to live a couple houses over used to decompost her leaves that way. I don't have room for a bin to put them in, I have a very small back yard.

I always thought my soil smelled pretty good? I'll have to ask my dad, if his sniffer still works good, he's a retired farmer.

My friend is going to think I'm totally off my rocker when I tell him we need to go get a few garbage cans of compost when I already have those bags of leaves! He just doesn't understand.


    Bookmark   March 24, 2009 at 7:35PM
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One thing I have learned over the years is that many people do not know what good, rich earth does smell like, and it is hard to describe except that it is a nice, pleasant odor. A soil that is water logged will most often have a putrid odor while a soil that lacks adequate organic matter and has been synthetically fertilized will smell like the fertilizer section of the garden shop, unpleasant, strong, harsh. Adding those leaves will add organic matter to your soil which will bring in earthworms since they eat organic matter and the lack of that OM means there will be no earthworms.
Whether your soil would need any lime, and which kind, can only be determined by a good, reliable soil test, a soil test from the garden shop will not tell you that. Adding the wrong material can create more problems than it would solve. Dolomitic lime is used in soils low in Magnesium, a nutrient plants need to properly utilize Calcium. An imbalance in the Mg/Ca ratio can result in a plant being unable to use the Calcium which will cause things like tomatoes to have Blossom End Rot. So what is the cause of BER? Not enough Ca? Not enough Mg? Not enough soil moisture? Too fast plant growth? The only way to be sure it is not the Ca or Mg you need a soil test.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2009 at 11:44AM
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katyajini(z6 NYC)

Gosh I don't know much about the fine details of soil fertility....But I mulch heavily every spring with dry leaves that I collect in bags that all my neighbors put out for the city to take. My soil is sooo friable! So full of meaty earth worms. The fruits and flowers are growing happily and profusely. And I have essentially controlled the weeds in the sections that I do this. I keep meaning to add something like seed meal or blood meal because people keep telling me that wood chips and leaves tie up nitrogen from the main plants but have not gotten to it in the past 5 years. If my soil is lacking in available nitrogen my plants are not telling.

I love my dry leaves. And, yes, they are completely broken down by the end of summer.

What do think?


    Bookmark   March 28, 2009 at 9:44PM
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Just remember if you add a layer of straight leaves to your garden to also add a layer of grass. A friend of mine adds over a foot of shredded leaves to his garden every fall, but he also mixes about half again that amount of fresh grass clippings in also to help the leaves break down more quickly and keep the nitrogen levels up. He has a pretty awesome garden every year with none of the stunted growth and yellowing seen in the above pictures. oh and by spring that mountain of leaves and grass is only about 2 inches thick and gets incorporated into the soil with a tiller.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2009 at 9:51PM
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