Saturday, October 26, 2013

What To Do with All These Leaves

I find this scene in my yard quite beautiful.
Several years ago I called an experienced arborist to a property I was working on. I showed him a tree that just did not look right. I had planned to enlarge the mulched ring around the tree and possibly give the tree some organic fertilizer and he gave me some simple, wise advice. “Go into the woods over there behind the property and scrape up some old leaves from the ground. Dump a wheelbarrow or so of this leaf mold around the tree, then put the mulch on top.” I did exactly as he said and realized leaves are nature’s mulch. Leaves provide everything the tree needs. No one ever fertilizes a forest. Leaves that are breaking down (known as “leaf mold”) are full of microscopic life including beneficial bacteria and fungi  that will enrich the soil and nourish the tree. And so began a whole new way of thinking about leaves for me.  Ever since, I use fall leaves everywhere in my yard and gardens.

Here are several ways I use leaves on my property and I hope to encourage you to do too.
  • I use leaves to topdress vegetable beds in late fall after a few hard frosts. I especially topdress my garlic crop which I plant in late fall. Leaves keep the beds mulched-for free.  This regulates soil temperature swings and supresses any winter weeds. In spring, I turn whatever leaves are still there into the soil with a pitchfork. The worms love this (it is what they eat) and it attracts more of them to my beds. More worms equals more earthworm castings which is the best organic soil conditioner there is!
  • I use leaves to add organic matter directly to the lawn.  Use a mulching mower and mow them over the lawn in place-Chopped leaves break down very quickly.  The lawn can always use more organic matter. Organic matter means better water retention and more soil microbes. Soil microbes break down thatch naturally and fertilize the soil. This makes a happier, greener lawn for you.
  • For shade gardens, do not rake the leaves at all. It is that simple. If you have been raking your leaves out of a shade garden or from under a tree, just leave them this year and watch the magic happen.  See how much happier your trees and shade gardens will be.  Toads will appreciate this too. They burrow into the leaf layer for the winter. In spring and summer, they eat all the slugs and bugs that bother your shade plantings.
This toad is happy amongst the leaves in early spring that were left alone in a shade garden the fall before. He needs them for his winter habitat to keep him warm!
The spring wildflowers (like this Trout Lily, Erythronium americanum, come right up through the layer of leaves that fell the fall before.

  • I use leaves to layer into my compost bins with all the kitchen scraps. Leaves mixed with kitchen scraps and other green plant material, you can make and have beautiful compost available all season.
  • I use leaves to create new garden beds in fall. I outline the new garden bed, lay cardboard down on top of the lawn and add a very thick layer of leaves on top of the cardboard. I sprinkle a little compost on the leaves to help hold them down. In spring, the grass is no longer alive and I can edge and plant a new garden here without having to dig out the grass. Leaves make this job much easier! After planting a new bed using this method, if you do not like the look of the leaves as a mulch, simply spread a natural finely chopped mulch on top of the leaves. They will enrich this garden for seasons to come.
The cardboard smothering method.

A landscaper dumped leaves here for years. This helped smother the unwanted vegetation like Multiflora Rose and it has become a super rich soil, ready for planting. The leaf pile here was enormous-now it is gone and I need more! It broke down naturally and I fed some of it into my compost bins with the kitchen scraps.

Somehow we have been taught to think of leaves as something to “get rid of.” We rake them up, bag them and throw them away. We pay crews to use loud, gas powered machines to blow them off our garden beds and vacuum them up into trucks and cart them to the dump. Many towns spend a lot of money to take leaves from yards every fall. What if we could learn to recycle these, right on our property?

Right now is the ideal time to stockpile your leaves. Pick a spot in your yard and dump them all there-as many as you can get. In no time, they break down and the pile will be MUCH smaller and you’ll actually wish you had more! Add them to your gardens and enrich the soil. The wise arborist I used many years ago was right and I will always appreciate his advice. Leaves are nature’s mulch-Leave them be!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

I was asked to write an article for the first ever Horticulture Newsletter at Naugatuck Valley Community College. After my organic views were called called "quackery" in my landscape maintenance class by a guest speaker, a well-known CT Agricultural Station guy, I became a bit more outspoken on organic methods in class. I wanted those young upcoming landscapers and designers to know there is a better way, a natural way that the plants prefer. I tried to write about plants or design but my real passion these days is the soil. Soil is the basis of all life. 
So here is my article from 2011, copied from the Naugatuck Valley Community College Horticulture Newsletter, the great little school I go to, to study Horticulture and Landscape Design, one class at a time. I would appreciate any and all feedback or questions!

No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

Fallen leaves are nature's mulch. Why not use them in your yard too?

Walking in the forest evokes a sense of calm and wonder. The forest is a lush, beautiful place filled with amazing plants of all kinds. Did you ever think about why the forest is so healthy? How could it be so without our intervention?
The answer is the soil. Specifically the “soil food web.” Soil is alive and filled with zillions of microscopic organisms all living and working together to promote a healthy environment for the plants growing in it. The forest soil is mostly untouched. It has never been rototilled, had its leaves raked up or had a synthetic fertilizer added to it. How can we achieve this type of soil in our gardens? It is simple really. We need to re-establish a healthy soil food web.

Ferns in the forest love the leaf mulch and spring forth each year from under the leaf blanket that protected and nourished them over the winter. 

Healthy soil is teeming with life, some of which we can see like earthworms and insects, but mostly life that is too small to see without the help of a microscope. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa and nematodes are all there. They colonize around the plant roots and form a symbiotic relationship with the plant and keep the bad guys away. They eat what the plant exudes into the soil, and in turn, they release it back into this soil into a form the plant can use. The larger organisms such as earthworms and insects eat and break down nutrient rich organic sources such as leaves and release the nutrients into the soil. They hold moisture. Nature is an amazing system and it takes care of itself without the blue fertilizer or chemical pesticides to feed and protect it.

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) is a wildflower that pops up all over the forest floor in spring.

Every yard had a healthy soil food web at one time. The use of chemical fertilizers and chemical insecticides/herbicides to kill weeds, fungi and insects has killed all the healthy microbiology that was once there. The result is a sterile environment which is susceptible to further disease and nutrient deficiency. It must be continually fed with more artificial nutrients! 

Why not feed your gardens with compost, compost tea and organic mulches. Use free chopped leaves as a mulch or a natural cedar mulch on top of some chopped leaves (not the chemically dyed red, brown or black mulches). As a fellow plant nut like the rest of you- we all know that healthy soil = healthy plants. I would recommend reading a book that completely explains the soil food web (in a very easy way) by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis called “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web.” It has opened my eyes to the life below us and how amazing it is. 

In 2012, no matter what you grow, promise to keep synthetic chemicals out of your yard and garden. Your soil food web will thrive and reward you with healthier, happy plants. Not to mention peace of mind knowing you are contributing to a healthier earth for all.

*note-the title of this piece comes from the book by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis called “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web.”  It just makes so much sense!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Say No to TruGreen or Other Non Organic Lawn Services

This is my organic lawn which has the occasional "weed".
Do I really need to spray the whole acre to get rid of that one weed?
What is a weed? Do they HAVE to go away? Why?
Here it is, mid-January and I have just received my first lawn solicitation from a lawn "care" company. It is amazing actually, they may have even beat TruGreen's (formerly known as Chem-Lawn) pricing. For the low price of $115 per application, I can have my entire huge acre of lawn sprayed to keep it green and weed free. The problem here is this comes with a HUGE price for me and my family and any other living thing that may come over to visit. If I go with a company like this I will be spraying toxic liquid all over my yard and have poison granules spread that we will walk on and carry into our house. This will make my lawn very, very green and insect and dandelion free. The problem with me is, I LIKE the dandelions and insects. If I have a few dandelions, my kids can pick them and make bouquets. Bees will come visit my dandelions and pollenate my vegetables. Beneficial insects like ladybugs will come and eat the aphids off my garden flowers so I won't have to spray those either. Birds will come to the lawn and pluck out the grubs and other pests. There is no need to poison yourself for the sake of a carpet like green lawn. If you are covered in dandelions, this really means something is off with your soil and no amount of spray or spreading of granules is going to fix it. Weeds are a sign of a soil problem. Dandelions mean your calcium is low and the pH is off. Crabgrass means your soil is compacted and could use an aeration and overseeding in the fall. There is a cultural or organic solution to every lawn problem. What to do and where to start? Take a soil test and find out what your soil is asking you for. Ask for organic recommendations with the results. And if you really, really, REALLY look at the weeds, are they really so bad? The vase of flowers below is a vase of my lawn "weeds." I rather like them actually.

Flowers my kids picked for me from the lawn.
Who decided to convince us these are weeds???
The pink one is clover which bees love and bunnies eat!
As more of these solicitations arrive in your inbox, please think very hard about hiring one of these guys to come do your lawn. And don't be fooled by the bagged 4 step products from the big-box stores either--you'll just slowly poison yourself while applying. Or quickly if you overapply! (I used to do that-more is better right?)
I am realizing now I do not even need such an expanse of lawn. What I need and really, really, really want is a low maintenance (once a year mow/never fertilize), sustainable flowery meadow my kids and I can explore. I can mow paths through it and we can find cool bugs, watch butterflies and pick pretty flowers. Where is it written we need to have such large expanses of green lawn? Why is this the norm? I want a lawn, just not so much of it. So I will toss the $115 estimate to poison my yard into the recycling bin and hope many, many people do the same. And for the rest of winter I will dream of and figure out how to plant my beautiful meadow.


Really research what you are applying to the lawn. Pesticides and herbicides (weed and feed) products are quite dangerous, especially to kids who play and roll around here. (well not here as this is my lawn and there is no danger-come on over neighborhood kids!)
Do not trust the lawn care guy who states they are "perfectly safe in the small quantities we apply."
That is a BIG red flag!
Ask for SPECIFIC chemicals they use and google them before letting them be added to your soil. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

If you plant it, they will come.

Even the smallest of gardens, like my mailbox garden shown here, attracts wildlife. Here we see many bees and a monarch. Turn up the volume and hear many birds in the background. In fall, the rudbeckia triloba and echinacea seed heads will be eaten by birds. The birds hide in the flowers and fly out as we enter the driveway!
So simple, so much fun!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Weed and Feed or Asthma? Maybe a little splash of a learning disability? You make the choice.

This is a copy of a letter I am about to send to our local paper and post on My intention is to educate people who do not realize the dangers they are subjecting their families and pets to when they apply these products that are so easy to buy and apply. I have been thinking of how to do this for about two years and this was the jump start I needed. Seeing our education tax money being used to spray chemicals at our high school was my wake up call. Seeing these signs here at the school made me sick. I am relieved to get started on my mission and hope you will join me. -Diane

Areas where lots of kids hangout were sprayed.

 I discovered today some of the tax money we pay to the Board of Education for our children’s schooling is being spent on chemical lawn care and toxic pesticides that were applied to school property this week. A broadleaf weed killer was applied which contains a chemical called 2-4D.  2-4D is used by lawn care companies and homeowners to kill broadleaf weeds such as clover and dandelions in lawns. This chemical is proven to be highly toxic. Cancer, asthma, autism, Parkinson’s Disease, ADHD, and birth defects have all been linked to exposure to common lawn care chemicals, such as 2-4D. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finds home and garden pesticide use can increase the risk of childhood leukemia by almost seven times. This definitely poses a risk to our children.
Do you know want to know where this chemical was applied? At  Coginchaug Regional High School and The Board of Education buildings. Tru-Green is a lawn care company, formerly known as ChemLawn,  which was hired by our Board of Education to spray the grass. On Tuesday August 23, 2011, the Tru-Green truck pulled up, a man got out and started spraying all the lawns close to the building with toxic pesticides. The use of these types of chemicals on properties is very dangerous. When I saw the little yellow signs that read PESTICIDE APPLICATION, I was livid. I could smell the chemicals and my stomach felt sick thinking of all the teenagers who very soon would be walking across this grass, not knowing what they are walking through, stirring up, breathing in and tracking home. A chemical used to KILL should not be applied to places our children hang out, especially for the reason it was applied. I photographed many of the areas where the little yellow signs were, documenting the sprayed areas. I walked around the building, careful not to step on ANY lawn, smelling that familiar sickening chemical scent and my jaw dropped when I saw this last sign directly in front of the Board of Education. I realized who would have hired this company to do this. The BOE, who oversees our children’s future, is exposing them to toxic chemicals. And spending our tax money to do it!

A little background on me. I am a fairly new CT resident, having moved here in 2006. I also hired Tru-Green to “fix” our weedy lawn for 2 seasons. They underbid every other company I called so I went with them. They said all the right things, how it was “safe” for my young children to walk on the grass once it was dry. I did not know any better-many homes in the neighborhood used this company, or another company like them.
 In 2008 I started to discover what chemicals they were applying to my property and how they work. I went through the UConn Master Gardening Program and learned how our soil is alive with beneficial microorganisms and how there is a whole web of life in our soil, feeding the plants (including grass) naturally.  I learned how organic lawn and garden fertilizers feed the soil organisms slowly, stay put and release nutrients to the grass plants as needed. Synthetic chemical fertilizers bypass the soil, feeding the grass directly, leaving a lifeless soil and then the excess runs off into streams, ponds, lakes, and eventually, the oceans.  Synthetic chemical fertilizers are like a drug to plants--they give plants an immediate boost, the excess washes away and the plants stress out and therefore need MORE chemicals. It’s an endless cycle of toxic sprays and synthetic pellets being applied to the lawn. I stopped using Tru-Green. I no longer believed that what they were using on my property was “safe” like they claimed. “Just stay off until it is dry” is NOT true. The chemicals stay there much longer and get on our shoes. They migrate from our shoes into our carpets where our babies play and put toys with 2-4D into their mouths. The chemical 2-4 D has been tested to be found in carpeting for a full year after application!
I went back to college to study horticulture and landscape design and got a job at an organic garden center. My lawn has now been organic for three years and is safe and quite pretty. I have studied lawn care in school, learned organic gardening and lawn care at my job and have become passionate about spreading the word that these everyday, easily available lawn care products are just down right dangerous! They are especially dangerous to small living things like children and pets.
I do not want my tax money spent on something that can directly harm our children! I want to feel secure knowing the BOE is looking out for my kids! This is ridiculous!

The Connecticut legislature passed a law (P.A. 09-56) banning lawn care pesticide applications on the grounds of day care centers, elementary and middle schools (grade 8 and lower) as a result of residents’ concerns about children’s health and the environment. This ban went into effect for day care centers on October 1, 2009 and for K-8 schools on July 1, 2010. Some Connecticut municipalities have gone beyond the requirements of the law and have stopped using pesticides to manage turfgrass on all their municipal properties.
Read the details of this law at

So technically what the BOE applied on Tuesday August 23, 2011 is not illegal. What it IS however, is COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY AND IRRESPONSIBLE. These chemicals were used to control the COSMETIC look of the lawn. I feel the health and safety of my children and neighbors is more important than the “look” of the lawn. Go and see it for yourself. It is green. It WAS safe--according to the BOE employee I talked with who claimed they have not used these chemicals in years at the school. It looks kind of pretty actually, weeds and all. Now it is still green with some dead weeds and is not safe for our children to walk across. 

New York State passed a similar law last year but took it one step further. They protect their children through grade 12. We need to do this here in Connecticut!
Several other states are realizing the dangers of these readily available chemical products and are passing tougher laws to restrict their use or ban them outright. Most of Canada’s provinces have passed laws banning not only schools and parks from using these products, but homeowners as well. The Home Depot in Canada does not sell the Scott’s chemical lawn care “step” programs anymore based on a law they passed to protect citizens from unknown dangers of lawn pesticides used for cosmetic reasons.
No one pays attention to the little signs. 

I believe we should not allow the BOE to spend our tax money so frivolously. Right now, we are cutting bus stops to save money (putting many children in dangerous situations) and spending it on this poison. Something is not right here. Do you agree?

Diane St John

Click here to read what the CT towns of Branford, Essex and Plainfield are doing to protect their citizens.

Here are some sources for the facts in my report on 2-4D.  and

And this is one of my favorite websites of a local community coming together with the children to educate others about toxic lawn chemicals. The kid tab page is especially cute.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Our Growing Backyard Nature Habitat

A back section of yard that was full of invasives. We chopped them down, tarped the area for a summer, then added truckloads of leaves in fall and started to plant. 
I have always been interested in nature. I grew up camping, hiking and playing outside.  My husband affectionately has called me “Crazy Plant Woman” for about 18 years (when he first realized my affliction). In the past five years I have become seriously interested in nature. I moved from Chicago to Connecticut in 2006 and now had a house with 2 acres, one of which was the lawn, the other is mature woods with a beautiful creek running through it. My kids and I spend time exploring in the woods and playing on a small area of the massive lawn, “the playing field” which my husband turns into a baseball or football field, depending on the season. When my children started school here I went on field trips with the outdoor education teachers at my kid’s school and realized I had good, native plants growing in my yard. The kind the Native Americans would use for band-aids and to make toothbrushes to brush their teeth. I became even more interested in nature. I decided to go through the UConn Master Gardening program. Wow-now I saw the invasive plants in my yard and began pulling them out for several years. I became more interested in nature. I went back to school, this time for horticulture and landscape design. I got a job at a great garden center well known for it's teaching of organic land care practices and cool plants. Now I am immersed with nature all the time, and very happy about it.
One area of the outdoors I am fascinated with is the insects, birds and wildlife. So are my kids. I have found nature is not only meditative for me, it is for my kids as well. I purchased a CT bird book and a bird feeder four years ago when my oldest son Sam was six and a half. He got a notebook and went out and sat in the garden with the book and tracked the birds he saw.  My heart was smiling. My daughter Catherine is happiest when we are able to find a toad in the yard. My youngest, six year old Henry is the most like me. He gets home from daycare and immediately walks the entire yard, alone, and quietly observes the changes since the previous day.  He picks peas and eats them. He rushes to tell me all he saw and takes me to see it. He notices the tiniest things. He finds four leaved clovers. He knows which bugs are beneficial for the plants, which are not.
I am now immersed in the biggest challenge of all. Returning my yard to nature. We do not need an acre of lawn. We need at most a large patch. The wildlife needs the habitat and we are going to give it to them, one small area at a time.  I have seen firsthand, if you build it, they will come. I started this process a few years ago by cutting down a large area of multiflora rose and smothering it with truckloads of free chopped leaves from my landscaper friend. This area is now planted and growing native trees and flowers, which are the habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and as of Sunday, a box turtle we saw digging around. That turtle has no idea how happy he made us, and how determined we are to make more room for him and his friends. The nature girl in me has taken over and is spreading to my children and any of their friends who come by.