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Dropped leaves can double as mulch in right conditions

Q. I have several large leaf-dropping trees in the yard, along with a few newly planted – earlier this year – shrubs. I was told when purchasing them that I could use the leaves from my trees as a mulch to protect the shrubs at their base this dormant season. What do you think? E.M., Grants NM

A. I think that would be acceptable, with a few cautions I’d ask you to keep in mind. First, the leaves that come from the trees should be from healthy trees only.

If you are considering piling up leaves from, let’s say, a purple-leaf plum that has been suffering with a fungus, then NO, I’d recommend you not use diseased leaf matter as a mulch for your young shrubs.

Then I suggest that you water the shrubs as required through the dormant season. Just because their bases are mulched doesn’t mean they will not dry out. Moisture will still be a concern for you. As the weather allows, I’d suggest you fluff up the leaves you’ve gathered at the plant bases periodically, so they don’t mat and repel life-giving water.

In the spring, I suggest that you “de-leaf” the shrubs so that the moats are exposed to give you better visual when watering next year. Allowing the leaves to sit for extended periods of time could invite trouble with either bugs or molds that might affect the health of the shrubs.

I know some who choose to use grass clippings, but with that I will caution that the clippings must also be “clean.” If any weedkiller had been applied to the lawn, you could inadvertently be applying the weedkiller to your shrubs. Not a good thing at all.

So yes, as long as the leaves come from healthy trees or grass clippings come from an untreated lawn you could use them as a free mulch. Just remember to remove it this coming spring.

Q. I’m looking for a good reference book to give to my daughter for Christmas. She’s just bought her first home, and the backyard is for the most part naked. What books would you suggest as useful to a beginning landscaper? M.B.

A. First and foremost, Sunset publishes a book called “Western Garden Book.” This book is my bible. It gives details on plants by botanical name and common name, so she’d be able to know if a specific plant would work in her environment. It goes into healthy planting and maintaining practices, tools, and even pests and plant diseases, so she’ll be able to get and keep a good handle on her grounds. My best pick for sure.

Second, I’d suggest author Baker Morrow’s book “Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens & Landscapes.” This lovely book is chock-full of information to give your daughter a well-informed way to design her world.

A blurb about the book calls it “an invaluable guide to trees, shrubs, ground covers, and smaller plants that thrive in New Mexico’s many life zones and growing areas.” With all the photos inside, it’s a really lovely book.

Then too, any work by author Judith Phillips will teach your daughter lots about the hows and whats about growing in our sometimes-challenging climate.

There is gobs of informative literature out there, but “Western Garden Book” and Baker Morrow’s book are two of my favorites. Whatever you find will help get and keep her on the proper path to good planting and growing

Happy Diggin’ In!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to