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Did you know that the leaves of one large shade tree can be worth big bucks in terms of plant food and humus? Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many minerals as manure. For example, the mineral content of a sugar maple leaf is over five percent, while even common pine needles have 2.5 percent of their weight in calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus, plus other trace elements.
So come fall, perhaps you should mix your leaves with nitrogen and manure for terrific mulch for your garden.
If you aren't too keen on recycling your leaves, try hay mulch. The method of mulching heavily with hay has enjoyed widespread if unpublicized use for many years. For example, if you grow sweet corn, you can flatten harvested stalks to the ground and then cover the flattened mess with hay. By springtime, any kind of plants can be set with a trowel through this cover.
What's more, hay mulch can facilitate your weeding, tilling and transplanting tasks. For example, instead of pulling unwanted plants out of the ground and disturbing the roots of others, bend the weeds flat and pull hay over them. Tomatoes also can easily be set through thin hay mulch.
If you're not interested in hay mulch, you have another option: make humus, which is also known as finished compost. Humus is the loose, crumbly material that results from the decay of organic matter such as grass clippings, garden waste or kitchen scraps. If you are using a pile, it can reach a height of 4 or 5 feet, but keep the top flat or indented so that it catches rainwater and stays moist enough to continue breaking down. If the season is dry, you can wet the pile now and then with the hose. You can speed up the process of composting by turning your compost pile, or tumbling your compost bin.
When the compost is loose and crumbly and the materials that went into it have lost their identity, then the compost is ready to go in your soil.
For more tips on mulching and composting, see: Using Hay as Mulch for Organic Gardening.