The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Elderberry leaf mulch

Elderberry leaves used as mulchEver since I read that traditional Guatemalan farmers use young elderberry leaves as mulch around their vegetables, I've been aching to give it a shot...and to figure out why they focus on elderberries rather than on other trees.  The answer to that question may be a combination of early leafing, compound leaves that are easy to pull off the trunks and quick to decompose, and elderberry's inherent resilience.  I've been mowing over some elderberry sprouts in the mule garden for three years now, and they just keep coming back up (and spreading), so I'm not concerned that I'll harm my shrubs by pulling off a few leaves.

Tuesday I decided to strip the patch of elderberries by the barn as part of my neverending search for more mulch.  The big leaves broken off quickly and easily --- if I had a good-sized plantation of elderberries, I might not need any other source of mulch.

After I ran out of elderberries, I moved on to the box-elders that are still sprouting up from stumps along the garden edges.  These leaves took longer to harvest, but not by much.  I just closed my gloved hand around the base of a small branch and pulled my way to the tip, stripping off all the leaves in my path.  The result is a little bin of leaves that densely covered a couple of raised beds.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Just remember that except for the berries, elderberry is supposedly toxic. I don't know how toxic, but you're not supposed to eat it.
Comment by Shannon Wed May 5 13:59:56 2010

Interesting! A quick search of the internet turns this up:

  • Elderberry roots emit phenolics which prevent Douglas fir from growing.

  • The leaves and roots seem to be poisonous to humans and livestock, probably because they contain a cyanide-like compound. I can't seem to find any evidence that cyanide impacts plants, though.

So, it sounds like using the leaves as mulch won't impact plants, although their might be an allelopathic effect if I grew the elderberries close to plants I care about. (Presumably only if I grew Douglas fir, but often allelopathic plants affect more species than we know about.)

Comment by anna Wed May 5 15:09:05 2010

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