What to do with those leaves, leaves, leaves.

(This blog was originally published on October 22, 2014.)

The other day I was driving through town and really noticed the changing leaves for the first time this fall.  They are looking particularly colorful this year.  The maple trees varieties like ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’ and ‘Autumn Blaze’ put on quite a show.  My favorite tree at the Arboretum is the Sugar Maple called ‘Table Rock’.  It has consistent orange-red fall color. 

Table Rock Sugar Maple

These leaves, no matter how beautiful, will eventually fall.  Then we need to decide what to do with them.  Here at the Arboretum we compost them.  Leaf compost makes excellent plant food and humus that can be incorporated into your garden or flower bed.  Leaf compost is high in valuable minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and other trace elements.  Analysis shows that leaves from most trees can contain up to twice as many minerals as aged manure. 

American Ash

Why wouldn’t you want to make your own compost from leaves?  Good compost developed from leaves also adds organic matter to the soil.  This organic matter is great for aerating heavy clay soils or increasing water holding in sandy soils.  Take advantage of these free gifts.   

Steps for composting leaves:

  1. Collect leaves. Shred them into small pieces to speed decomposition.  Place leaves on the ground which will make it easier to turn and allow beneficial organisms such as worms to infiltrate the pile. 
  2. Initially, put a layer of leaves down several inches deep on the bare ground.  This helps aerate the entire pile.    
  3. Layer compost pile if possible with alternating green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) material.  Green material can be grass clippings, food scraps, algae, tea bags or any nitrogen source.  These green ingredients speed the decomposition of the brown material.  Brown material can be leaves, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, or straw.  These ingredients are generally slow to decompose and clump together.  They need time and moisture for optimum breakdown.  As a general rule, try to have one-third green and two-thirds brown.  The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.  Too much green makes a smelly, anaerobic mess.  More brown is better than too much green. 
  4. Keep pile moist by either manually watering or allowing rain to infiltrate compost.  Not too moist though.   
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks.  This incorporates and mixes all the elements together while aerating the pile.  If the pile is never turned, oxygen which is an essential component in the process of decomposition will be excluded.  Allow the compost pile to reach an internal temperature of 140-160 degrees to kill weed seeds.  If your compost pile is not reaching these temperatures add more green material.    
  6. In 4 to 6 months (next spring) the composting process will be complete.

If you don’t have need of fresh compost, the Arboretum is willing to take your bagged leaves.  We are again filling our leave house with our leaves but can take more.  Just drop your bags of leaves in the bus parking area at the arboretum.  We will take them back to the leaf house.  The leaf house is a great example of decomposition in action.

Quiet stop in the leaf house

October Richness

Life flies by for all of us and it is easy to miss or forget what happens in a given month. When reviewing recent photographs on my phone, I was pleasantly reminded of all the richness that happened over the last four weeks or so. October in Kansas is that great fall transition period between summer and winter, hot and cold, green and brown, and fast and slow when there is SO MUCH to see. For those that feel that they endure the extremes of Kansas to revel in the moderation that comes with fall, October is your time.

I was reminded from these photos of our Dyck Arboretum of the Plains mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land. Let’s review in the following photos the richness that can be found in that interface between the plants/wildlife of Kansas and the people that enjoy this place in October.

Monarch fallout.

October 1 brought a monarch “fallout” when their migration was interrupted by strong south winds. They momentarily took a break from their journey and sought shelter in our Osage orange hedge row.

Tagged monarchs.

Local monarch enthusiast, Karen Fulk, took advantage of the fallout to capture and tag monarchs with identification numbers that help other monarch observers in Mexico or elsewhere to better understand the speed and location of their migration.

Middle school students measuring tree height with the “rough estimate” method.

Santa Fe Middle School students from Newton were able to witness the end of the monarch fallout on October 2 and also enjoyed various activities on the Dyck Arboretum campus that included insect collecting, plant sampling and measuring tree height. The Dyck Arboretum’s Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools (EPS) Program curriculum has a lesson that teaches students how to measure tree height with five different methods including estimation, shadows, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

Measuring tree height.
Lorna Harder teaching a 5th Grader about plant identification.

On October 6, former and current Dyck Arboretum board members hosted tours of their homes and land near Hesston for Arboretum Prairie Partners. Lorna and Bob Harder gave a tour of their solar photovoltaic-powered home and surrounding prairie landscape and LeAnn and Stan Clark hosted everyone for dinner on their patio surrounded by extensive native plant landscaping.

Lorna Harder leading a tour of the native prairie she is helping steward.
Director, Scott Vogt, welcoming Arboretum Prairie Partners to a meal on LeAnn and Stan Clark’s patio.

Hesston Elementary students took a field trip to the Arboretum on October 10 to conduct a leaf scavenger hunt, learn about monarch migration, observe different seed dispersal mechanisms and study insect diversity in the prairie.

Hesston Elementary students search for insects in the Arboretum reconstructed prairie.
Finding seeds, grasshoppers, beetles, flies, spiders, true bugs, and more.
Insect sweeping.
Students found a female striped wolf spider carrying its newborn young on its abdomen.
Grasshoppers are plentiful in the prairie during October.
Initial insect skittishness turned to fondness during the field trip.
Beehives at Earhart.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary in Wichita, a Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools participating school, engages their students in environmental education with hands-on activities such as beekeeping. Students tend the bees, grow and maintain native plant gardens as nectar sources, and regularly camp on their grounds to learn more about the natural world around them.

Earhart students check a birdfeeder while searching for insects in one of their courtyard native plant gardens.
Earhart students found a preying mantis egg casing or ootheca.

On October 17, Walton Elementary (another Kansas EPS School) students came to the Arboretum to collect seed and study how seeds disperse. They each had a target plant they were searching for and from which they were aiming to collect seed. They did the same last year, germinated the seed in their greenhouse over the winter, and had a successful native plant sale in the Walton community.

College students observing a garter snake.

Bethel College environmental science classes visited the Arboretum on October 24 to learn about the native plants and wildlife of Kansas, natural resource management, and ecological restoration. When students become interested in and well-versed about the natural world around them, they will turn into more informed and better-educated environmental decision-makers of the future.

Bethel students found a Pandorus sphinx moth caterpillar crossing an Arboretum sidewalk.
‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac from an Arboretum plant sale was in autumn splendor on October 26 at my house.

Part of establishing a rich sense of place for people in any one location involves not only natural history connection cultural enrichment through the arts. The Dyck Arboretum’s Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) features eight live music performances each season. Our 2019-20 season was kicked off with October bookend performances featuring Mark Erelli on September 29 and recently The Steel Wheels on October 26.

Mark Erelli – the first show of the 2019-20 PWCS.
The Steel Wheels – the second show of the 2019-20 PWCS.

On October 29, a stunning cold front rolled through Kansas and chilling temperatures caused delicately-held leaves on trees like ash, maple, Osage orange, and ginko to fall within hours. Social media posts were featuring leaves dropping quickly that day all over Kansas to make for a memorable fall day.

Ginko leaves and ‘iron butterfly’ ironweed.

The 2019 Eco-Meet Championships will be held at Dyck Arboretum in early November. In late October, organizers and high school teams from around the state were visiting the Arboretum to prepare for the big event. The competition will allow some of the brightest science students from around the state to showcase their knowledge on subjects including prairies, woodlands, entomology, and ornithology.

Students from Smoky Valley High visited the Arboretum on October 31 to prepare for Eco-Meet.

The cold nights and relatively warm days of late October have allowed the grass and tree leaves to show off their bright colors that have been hidden all growing season by the green pigments of chlorophyll. Seed heads are opening and dispersal mechanisms that catch the wind or lure animals are on full display. Good ground moisture and warm temperatures are still even allowing for a bit of late-season flowering from some species.

Sugar maple.
Little bluestem.
Seeds dispersing from a common milkweed pod.
The fall prairie is loaded with seeds this season which is good for seed-eating mammals and birds.
It has been a mast year for trees and the ground under this burr oak was covered with acorns.
Late season flowering by Leavenworth eryngo.
Aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’.

I’ll leave you with a video (sorry for the terrible camera work) of one of my favorite sights of every October – when the aromatic asters are in full bloom and late-season pollinators belly up to the nectar bar on a warm fall day. Enjoy.

Video of Pollinators nectaring on aromatic aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’