Fallen leaves offer great garden benefits

Asheville’s sanitation department estimates that it collects around 10,000 tons of leaves, brush and yard debris annually. Curious about where it all ends up?

According to John Henderson, customer service representative for Asheville’s sanitation services, the city’s bagged leaves are taken to Riverside Stump Dump, a private mulch operation with locations in Asheville, Weaverville and Mills River.

In the fall, operations ramp up at the company’s Weaverville location, where leaves from Asheville are transported for processing. “We separate the leaves and run them through one of our grinders, then they are windrowed to generate heat,” says Stump Dump employee Martin Barnwell. “After the heat cycle has been completed, we run the leaf mulch through our screener to remove any larger pieces of wood that may have gotten mixed in.”

In addition to producing mulch that’s for sale to the public, Barnwell says, the company provides single-grind mulch to paper mills in Canton and Kingsport, Tenn., which is burned to generate power for the mills.

In Hendersonville, however, the city processes leaves at its own yard-waste facility. Public Works Director Tom Wooten notes that the town employs bagless collection, where citizens simply pile loose leaves curbside for pickup. “We start in mid-October and run collection through the end of December, as well as the month of March,” he explains.

After grinding the leaves then composting them for several months, Hendersonville distributes the mulch for free from March to May, or until “people stop coming to get it,” says Wooten. The town announces its annual mulch distribution schedule on its Facebook page (Hendersonville, NC City Government) and through press releases.

Residents can also consider using leaf litter in their landscapes and gardens. Megan Riley, owner of M.R. Gardens in Asheville’s Oakley community, considers leaves “the most essential amendment that I add to the garden.” She tries to keep her vegetable garden covered with leaves or other types of organic matter throughout the year, except when beds have been recently planted. “It’s the same in nature,” she points out. “You would never walk in the forest and see bare ground unless it’s been disturbed. Organic matter is continually decomposing into nutrients for new life.”

Each fall, Riley prepares her garden for winter by covering established beds with at least 3 inches of mulched leaves. “The leaves then have plenty of time to decompose before beginning spring planting,” she says.

Leaves can also help contribute the carbon needed for an efficient compost pile. In Composting: A Guide to Managing Organic Yard Wastes, the N.C. State Extension suggests alternating layers of shredded leaves with nitrogen-rich food scraps and plant matter to achieve an optimal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 20 or 30 to 1.

Whether you choose to compost your leaves or use them as mulch, the guide advises shredding them so they can be more rapidly broken down by beneficial microbes. No worries if you don’t have a fancy mulching machine — a leaf pile can be shredded by simply mowing over it a few times with a standard lawn mower.

Those not interested in using their leaf litter can check with local community gardens or small farms to see if they accept leaves. Riley, for example, encourages folks to drop off their bagged leaves by the sign at her farm’s entrance.

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