Have you ever stopped to consider what will become of this autumn’s fallen leaves? They have formed a colorful carpet beneath the trees and it would appear that their usefulness has long passed. But given the chance, this leaf litter will decompose, returning nutrients back to the soil and nourishing the very same trees from which it fell.
Leaf litter can’t decompose on its own. It gets help from a whole community of bacteria, protozoa, fungi and animals that live in the soil and feed on dead plant and animal matter. Mushrooms, slime molds, mites, springtails, millipedes, isopods, slugs and earthworms are but a few of these helpers. They are the decomposers – the clean-up squad, the ultimate recyclers.
Check out leaf litter that has been allowed to accumulate for many years. You will notice that below this year’s dry fallen leaves is a layer of moist leaves. In this layer some leaves have been skeletonized, eaten by microorganisms until only the stem and veins remain. Further down, the decomposing leaves are darker, maybe a bit slimy, maybe covered with strands of white fungal growth. Below this layer the leaves have decomposed to the point where they are no longer recognizable. This is the humus layer, the transition between the organic matter (fallen leaves) and the inorganic matter (soil). Minerals such as calcium, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium and other critical elements are recycled into the soil from the organic litter. Natural, self-sustaining fertilizer!
If possible let those beautiful leaves lie where they fall; they protect bare soil from the eroding action of heavy rains. Another idea – heap shredded leaves on gardens as a mulch and natural fertilizer.