POP TIPS: fall leaf management

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Phil Forsyth

Nov 15, 2023, 9:41:51 AM11/15/23
to Philadelphia Orchard Group
Philly Orchardists,

Just a quick reminder to POP Orchard Partner sites to complete our annual survey, due 11/30!  

At this point, many trees and orchard plants have dropped their leaves and there are a few key management practices to keep in mind.  Fallen leaves can potentially be a source of disease spores for the next season, but they can also be a precious resource for soil improvement!  For these reasons, it is best to either collect fallen leaves or to help them break down in place.  

Here are some options for leaf management: 

1. Collect fallen leaves:

a. For use in composting (leaves are the ideal 'brown' or carbon-rich component in most compost systems).  

b. For use in winter protection of tender plants (we often surround figs with wire fencing and then stuff with fall leaves as insulation).  Will post more on this soon! 

Fall leaves are a precious resource, but also a potential source of orchard pathogens.  Make sure to either collect them or help them break down in place!

2. Help fall leaves break down in place: 

a. Spread 1-2 inches of compost in the orchard after the majority of leaves have fallen. 

b. Spray compost tea in the orchard after the majority of leaves have fallen.  

See our full POP TIPS below for more info on fall composting.  

Phil Forsyth, Co-Executive Director
Philadelphia Orchard Project
Pronouns: he/him

POP TIPS: Autumn Compost in the Orchard and Compost Pile Building

Compost Benefits

Why apply compost in your orchard? The benefits are many. Adding compost will add organic matter to your soil, and thereby feed your trees and bushes with vital nutrients. Additionally, spreading compost around the base of your trees and bushes will help with water retention and may reduce your irrigation needs. Compost also buffers the soil PH, as well as enhancing the soil structure, porosity and density. Lastly, compost will boost the microbiology of your soil, especially beneficial fungi and bacteria. This increased soil life can actually serve to reduce disease pathogens in your orchard!

Compost Timing in Orchards

One of the best times of year to put compost down in your orchard is in the late autumn. When at least half of your trees’ leaves have fallen, you can lightly spread your compost-- 1” deep around the base of your trees starting a few inches out from the trunk--and then mow the rest of the leaves to help them decompose faster and mix them with the compost you have spread. You can mow again when the rest of your leaves have fallen. This process of mowing and composting not only creates more fertile soil, but also helps to break down any fallen leaves and fruit that might carry diseases into the next year.  If you want even more water retention and added wind protection, you can also add a layer of wood mulch or straw on top of your layer of compost.

Tips for Autumn Composting

The autumn is an excellent time to gather materials for making your own compost. A healthy compost pile will have one third “greens” and two thirds “browns.” Greens are materials high in nitrogen, such as your food scraps or your garden weeds. Browns are materials full of carbon, such as brown leaves, wood chips, or straw. These “brown” materials are more plentiful in the autumn, but harder to find naturally in other seasons. Therefore, the autumn is an excellent time to save your brown leaves (in bags, burlap sacks, or a fenced in pile) to be used throughout the other seasons.

If you have a huge excess of leaves, you can also make a compost pile of only leaves. Put a layer of leaves, followed by compost or soil if available, and continue this process until you have a pile at least 3 feet high and 4 feet in diameter.  With only a couple turns of the pile, this leaf compost should be ready to spread in your orchard or garden by the next fall!

Composted leaves (aka leaf mould) are gold!

Compost is recommended to have a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of 30:1. The above diagram shows the C:N ratio of various items used in compost.

Compost Tea Spraying

Once most leaves have dropped, it is very beneficial to spray compost tea throughout your orchard, especially on fallen leaves and rotten fruit. Best practice is to remove infected leaves and fruit as you find them throughout the season (or add them to a hot compost pile that you're sure is hot enough); however, it's difficult to get everything. The beneficial microbes within compost tea help to more quickly break down leaves and other debris from the season. This is important for reducing pathogenic fungi and disease issues that may be lingering on leaves and waiting for warm, wet spring to strike again!

For more on making and using compost tea in orchards, see the article on our website: 

Though it's common practice for many gardeners to cut down all of the dried, skeletal flower and seed stalks in the autumn, the seeds and material therein are actually very good food and habitat for our beneficial insect and bird friends. If possible, leave all or most of the flower stalks in your orchard. It also makes less work for you and something to look at over the winter while everything is asleep!

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Leave dead stalks, leaves, and seed heads from companion plants to feed birds and beneficial insects over the winter months!  Cut them back in early spring instead. 

Marginal Plant Protection
Orchard plants that are only partially hardy in our climate and benefit from some winter protection include figs and pomegranates. It is important to wait until these plants have dropped their leaves before wrapping them to ensure that they are fully dormant. Figs and pomegranates can take a mild freeze without harm, but before temperatures get down below 20 degrees, you'll want to surround these tender babies with mesh fencing or burlap and cover them in leaves for a winter blanket.  More info on fig protection: 

As always, we'll try to send a warning when we see fig-damaging temperatures in the forecast, but best to have your protection measures already in place!

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