Q. Why not use whole leaves as mulch around plants for winter protection? A few months ago I planted small "China Boy" and "China Girl" holly plants -- we have many trees on our properly and I just left the whole leaves around these plants, thinking that they would protect the small hollies over winter . . .
No? Should I purchase wood mulch instead?
A. The problem is with the "whole" leaves – shredded leaves are great. Although it depends on the tree species, whole leaves tend to mat together and become water repellent. Oak leaves, for example, tend to break down very slowly – they may look the same next spring as they do right now. If they do mat together, they may become water repellent or hydrophobic, and create drought stress symptoms, especially in small plants such as your newly planted hollies.
There is no need to purchase wood chips now. You may eventually want to purchase them to mulch your hollies. Coarse mulch such as large pine bark nuggets or coarse shredded hardwood have less tendency to become water repellent than fine mulch such as miniature bark chips.
You could also shred your leaves, regardless of species, and use them for mulch. As they break down, shredded leaves add valuable nutrients to the soil. Your instincts regarding how valuable leaves can be is perfect – after all, no one is out in the woods or meadows spreading 10-10-10 fertilizer.
Leaf mulch should be no more than three to four inches deep and should not physically contact the stems of your hollies – or any other plant for that matter.