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Skaggs: Give leaves new life as blanket for flower beds
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In a few weeks, deciduous trees across North Georgia will begin their fall color show — green will give way to gold, red and yellow. And then they will drop. Instead of spending your fall burning leaves, consider using them as a blanket — for your plants.

Winter is approaching, and your plants need a warm bed just as much as you do.

While the tops of landscape plants go dormant for the winter, roots don't have such luxury. They continue to grow all winter. Active growth means the roots can't acclimate to cold and can easily be damaged if not provided extra insulation.

One of the best winter antifreezes for the landscape is fall leaves. Place 3 to 5 inches of leaves over the soil to keep plant roots toasty warm this winter.

The key to success when using leaves as mulch is to reduce their size by shredding them. Shredded leaves don't blow around like whole leaves.

If you don't have a shredder, simply place the leaves in small rows about one foot high and two feet wide. Then, with the lawn mower deck at the highest setting, run over the row a time or two.

A bagging attachment or a nearby tarp can collect the shredded leaves, which make fine-textured mulch. Use shredded leaves as a mulch under trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials.

Some gardeners use fall leaves to over-winter begonias, petunias and lantana in the landscape. In a mild winter, these plants may survive and come back next year thanks to a little extra winter protection.

After the first killing frost, cut them back to the ground, cover them with at least 5 inches of shredded leaves and leave them undisturbed until the next April. With a well-established root system, the plants will usually come back better than before.

Leaves tilled into the fall vegetable garden will become rich dark humus by next spring. And by adding leaves to the compost pile, you'll be rewarded with "black gold."

If you don't like the looks of leaves as mulch, use them as a base under pine straw or bark mulch, reducing the amount of other mulch needed and saving you money.

Once you learn to appreciate fall leaves, you may be tempted to become a leaf marauder like other avid gardeners, traveling deserted city streets at night, collecting bags of leaves others have discarded at curbside.

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County extension coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.