Burning tree leaves

A couple of weeks ago I was running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. The early snow we had back then didn’t help either.

One weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Burning destroys valuable soil builders.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

Mulch instead of staking tomato plants

Here we are, it’s the middle of July. The tomatoes have made good growth so far but some of them don’t have cages around them. Right now the plants are so big, you couldn’t get a cage around it no matter how hard you tried. What’s a gardener to do?

The first idea that comes to mind is to stake the plants to get them off of the ground. That sounds good, but at this point in time it is not the best thing to do for tomatoes.

Staking and pruning works great for small areas or when a gardener wants to cram as many plants as possible into a given area. In other words it makes efficient use of garden space.

In order for tomatoes to be staked properly however, they must be pruned from an early age. Pruning must continue regularly until the plant is fully grown or when the plant reaches the size you want. All of that pruning actually reduces the tomato yield per plant but it can increase the yield over a certain area because you can fit more plants per square yard.

If you haven’t caged your tomatoes by now, I’m willing to bet you haven’t been pruning them either, so for that reason alone, staking is out of the picture. Not only that, driving stakes next to a plant this time of year can cause serious damage to the roots.

In this case the easiest solution is also the best solution.

Tomato plants by nature have a sprawling growth habit, they don’t climb like cucumbers or melons. They don’t prop themselves up against objects to grow upward either, which is why we have to train them and tie them to supports.

You can simply let tomato plants do their thing and sprawl over the ground — if you mulch them. One of the best mulches to use for this is straw.

Mulch the plants by gently lifting the plant and tucking the straw beneath the foliage. Use about six to eight inches of straw and make sure you cover the entire space under the plant.The deep mulch will raise the foliage and fruit away from the ground and drastically reduce the possibility of disease and rotting fruit compared to letting it grow directly on the garden soil.

Tomato plants can take up a lot of “floor space” when left to grow over the ground. That means they may get crowded if they were planted close together with the idea of staking in mind.

There are some advantages to using this method. One is an increase in yield per plant. Another is less work because no pruning or tying  is required. Plus there is a reduction in cracked tomatoes and blossom end rot because of more even soil moisture in the root zone.

On the negative side, the fruit is more apt to have an uneven color on the side resting on the straw.  The fruit may somewhat smaller and not quite as even in shape compared to staked tomatoes.

Bob