Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Banish the oak leaves? That's just squirrelly

The warm weather is giving us an early opportunity to witness an especially pointless Florida ritual:

Homeowners rake up their live oak leaves — now falling to make way for new growth — and stuff them into plastic garbage bags that are stacked by the road and eventually carted off to the landfill.

The homeowners then drive to the lawn and garden center of their nearest big-box store and buy roughly the same number of plastic bags full of mulch.

This is pointless because, of course, oak leaves are mulch. Not only that, they are about the best mulch you can find for Florida. As the state's dominant hardwood species, the oak has leaves that are not only free but abundant.

That they are tough — shell-like, even — makes them a great barrier against weeds that like to sprout between rosebushes and tomato plants.

As the leaves decompose, they create a nutrient-rich compost, attracting earthworms that generally have a hard time getting by in Florida's sandy soil, said Jim Moll, the lawn and garden guru at the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.

Worms enrich and aerate the soil, Moll said. And, because of the tannic acid in oak leaves, their compost tends to nicely neutralize Florida's often alkaline soil. Several native plants, including palmettos, evolved to thrive at the base of oaks and pines and love slight acidity, said Richard Stauffer, a member of the Florida Native Plant Society. So do popular flowering non-natives, such as azaleas and camellias, Moll said.

When and why did homeowners abandon the practice of simply raking oak leaves and pine needles into their gardens and flower beds in favor of buying ground-up trees?

Decades ago, Moll said, and probably because they think it looks neater.

Maybe it does for a while, because who can deny the appeal of a fresh bed of cypress mulch? Soon, though, it starts to look as drab as any other dead plant material. And it comes at a steep environmental cost. Some cypress mulch is just chipped-up cypress trees — the backbone of vital wetlands — that are harvested only for that purpose.

If you must buy bagged mulch, Stauffer said, use the stuff made from melaleuca trees, a harmful exotic.

Still, oak leaves are best, he said. He and his wife, Julie Wert, president of a local chapter of the Native Plant Society and an award-winning natural gardener, keep an eye out for neighbors in Aripeka who have done their duty as owners of the standard Florida yard — gathering up and bagging oak leaves as if they're trash.

"Sometimes we'll see eight or 10 plastic bags. You can always tell they're oak leaves because they're light and fluffy," Stauffer said.

"We ask people if we can have them, and sometimes we even say we'll bring their bags back. They look at us like we're crazy."

He and Wert have a greenhouse full of vegetables growing in composted horse manure and oak leaves. Still doubt the leaves' nutrient power? Well, their tomato plants are 7 feet tall.

So Stauffer and Wert use oak leaves the way nature does, as fertilizer and mulch. In the process, they save landfill space, plastic bags, unnecessary car trips and an iconic wetland tree species.

And supposedly they're the crazy ones.

Banish the oak leaves? That's just squirrelly 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 5:18pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Shooting sends man to hospital in St. Pete

    Crime

    ST. PETERSBURG — Police were investigating a shooting that occurred around 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday and sent a man to the hospital.

  2. Police: Man tries to lure child with puppy in Polk County

    Crime

    Times staff

    HAINES CITY — A man was arrested Sunday after he tried to entice a young girl into his camper to view a puppy, according to police.

    Dale Collins, 63, faces a charge of luring or enticing a child under the age of 12. [Photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Editorial: Coming together to reduce car thefts

    Editorials

    The simple, knee-jerk response to the juvenile car theft epidemic in Pinellas County would be to crack down on offenders with an increased police presence and stiffer sentences. Thankfully, local community leaders did not stop there. As detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times follow-up to its 
As detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times follow-up to its "Hot Wheels" investigation into youth car thefts, a variety of ideas from multiple directions increases the odds of actually solving the cause and not just treating the symptoms.

  4. Editorial: Floridians' health care now at risk in Washington

    Editorials

    The health care for millions of Floridians is now at risk. The U.S. Senate's dramatic vote Tuesday to begin debate on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act with no idea what will happen is a dangerous gamble with American lives and the national economy. Barring an unexpected bipartisan compromise, a handful of …

    Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dramatically returned to the Senate for the first time since his brain cancer was diagnosed and cast the key vote that enabled Vice President Mike Pence to break the 50-50 tie and allow the health care debate to proceed.
  5. Former Marine from Florida dies fighting for Kurdish militia

    ORLANDO — A former Marine who secretly traveled to Syria earlier this year to battle the Islamic State was killed while fighting for a Kurdish militia, his father said Tuesday.

    David Taylor, with his father David Taylor Sr., was killed earlier this month in Syria while fighting for a Kurdish militia.