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Green leaves rot faster

Elderberry flowersAlthough the tree leaves I've been adding to my garden have some nutrients, they are really the iceberg lettuce of the organic fertilizer world.  They're primarily useful as an erosion-resistant mulch and, eventually, to boost the organic matter of my soil.  As I read about leaf decomposition, I came to realize that if I want to put really high quality leaves on my garden, I need to pick them green.

Green leaves are chock full of micro and macronutrients.  But trees aren't dumb; when autumn comes, the plants suck as many nutrients as they can out of their leaves.  Nitrogen content of fallen leaves is often less than half that in the same tree's green leaves, while the percent of lignin in fallen leaves more than doubles.  The result?  Green leaves decay much faster and release more nutrients into the soil.

Suddenly, I understand why various books have recommended growing shrubs like elderberries and hazels to be coppiced.  If I cut green shoots of these trees during the growing season and use them for mulch, the mulched plants will get a much greater boost of nutrients than if I'd waited and raked up the fallen leaves.

Mafongoya, P.L., K.E. Giller, and C.A. Palm.  1998.  Decomposition and nitrogen release patterns of tree prunings and litter.  Agroforestry Systems.  38: 77-97.

This post is part of our Leaves for Fertility lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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