Leave the leaves

November 23, 2020

Fall is the natural world’s swan song for the growing season. Colors from trees and shrubs glow brilliantly as they bid us adieu until next spring.  The beauty of fall color draws people from all over the world to great view sheds such as the Blue Ridge Parkway; however, leaves play a much more important role than just beauty. In the springtime, leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting gas into organic carbon compounds.  Come autumn, trees shed their leaves, leaving them to decompose in the soil as they are eaten by microbes.  Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon monoxide, all part of the natural cycle of a forest ecosystem.

At the Reserve, we practice adaptive management, a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.  Fall is a bountiful time of year for resource management at the Reserve in our high elevation forest.  Just like other species in the landscape, we spend our days gathering and collecting resources for the winter and spring.  Our main focus in the fall is collecting leaves and branches.  These leaves and branches are a crucial part of our carbon management program.

Once leaves are collected in a large storage area, we then shred them with an attachment on our tractor to create brown gold, otherwise known as leaf mulch.  This allows us to speed up the decomposition process for garden rooms, using the natural resources from the forest as mulch.  By keeping nutrients on site, we reduce costs, labor and the need to bring foreign materials onto the landscape.  Healthy soil equals healthy plants and ecosystems. Using leaf mulch instead of hardwood, pine needles, or pine mulch creates a more natural look to the woodland garden.  It’s best to shred the leaves as needed; shredded leaves left for an extended period of time tend to grow mold. Leaf mulch is also a favorite food of worms so your soil will be improved with the aeration their boring creates and the castings they leave behind. At home, you can make leaf mulch by using your lawn mower. Laying the leaves in a one-foot-high pile spread on a concrete parking pad or other flat surface is a good method. Be sure to use dry leaves, wear a dusk mask, gloves and other protective gear.

Cleaning forest floors by removing branches and deadwood is not considered a best practice for the forest ecosystem.  However, we go a step further in our resource management.  After collecting the branches, we then chip them back into the forest floor, speeding up the decomposition process and keeping nutrients on site.  At the Reserve, we strive to balance how humans and ecology intersect.  Taking these extra steps in gardening our woodlands is both important to the health of the ecosystem and to the aesthetics of the garden.