Leave the leaves! There are so many beneficial uses including mulching garden beds, insulating plants from damaging winter conditions, creating nutritious compost, and providing essential food and habitat for living things.
Be sure to get your free Fall Garden Checklist for more helpful tips and reminders.
Why Fall Leaves Are Good For the Garden
Are fallen leaves good for the garden?
Don’t Bag It programs like this one in Texas are popping up in communities as more people realize that fall leaves are extraordinarily good for the garden.
Uses include using the leaves as mulch in a garden bed, using leaves to protect plants in winter, and letting them decompose into leaf mold to improve soil structure.
The same way fallen leaves work in natural settings, they can also help our gardens.
Leaves are organic matter.
On the ground, they protect the soil and insulate plant roots.
As they decompose, they contribute to soil structure, help retain moisture and prevent erosion, and—this is where the magic happens—microbes, fungi, and other amazing bacteria convert leaves to essential plant nutrients.
The benefits are so good, it’s kind of crazy that we ever thought it was good to send them away.
Plus, it’s much less time and work to keep leaves right where we need them, providing perfect soil food.
Is it okay to use leaves as mulch?
Yes. Mulch is one of the easiest and best uses for fall leaves. Add a few inches of leaves to your garden beds in fall and leave them there for the winter. As time passes, the leaves slowly decompose, gradually adding nutrients to the soil.
In addition to all the natural, free benefits they provide—more on these below—the time and effort to send them away are costly, inefficient, and not so eco-friendly.
Is there such a thing as too many leaves in the garden?
Yes. Our lawns and gardens are living, breathing things. If fallen leaves are too deep, as they take in moisture they can clump together and smother whatever is below them. You’ve probably seen this with grass lawns: if leaves are too dense, the grass underneath either dies entirely or becomes a soggy mess.
The same goes for garden beds. Bare soil can take more leaves than lawn, but don’t overdo it. It really helps to grind the leaves first using a mulching lawnmower. When chopped into smaller bits, water moves more freely through the leaves into the ground below. Whole leaves can cling together to form a barrier that traps water. Mulched leaves work much better.
5 Smart Uses For Fall Leaves
1Shred and Keep Instead of Raking and Bagging
Instead of raking and bagging your leaves, grind them up with a lawnmower and, if they are just an inch or so deep, leave them right where they are. I have mulching lawnmower like this one that grinds stuff up as it cuts. I suspect other lawnmowers can do it as well.
It’s amazing how this process reduces what would have been a big pile of a leaves into a fraction of the volume. With the leaves reduced to little bits, there’s nothing else to be done.
If the end results are less than a half inch deep on your lawn, your work is done. If they’re deeper than that, rake the surplus into your garden beds.
Bagging Versus Saving Leaves
My neighbor and I each get the same amount of leaves in our yards (a lot of them). He likes to rake and remove every leaf. I prefer to keep mine, so I thought it would be interesting to compare our work loads and end results.
Here’s what I saw a few autumns ago:
During the weeks of leaf drop, he clocked approximately 21 hours of raking and filled 30 large yard waste bags.
Now, granted, he likes to do a lot of yard work, so his time was very likely longer than someone who just wanted to get the job done.
But, even with that in mind, it’s probably 15 hours of raking, lifting, bagging, and transporting.
In contrast, I waited until 90% of the leaves had dropped, and then ran my mulching lawnmower over them.
This simply grinds the leaves up into smaller bits on the lawn. There were enough leaves that I had to go over them twice, equivalent to mowing our lawn two times.
My total time spent was about 2.5 hours.
The neighbor’s leaves were hauled to a local yard waste collection site. My mulched leaves stayed right on the lawn and any extra were placed on garden beds.
As mentioned, once you run the mulching lawnmower over them, they are reduced to a fraction of their original size.
Sometimes the volume is so small after shredding that I wish I had more leaves.
In fact, this may be the year that I ask my neighbors if I can have their bagged leaves.
Same Amount of Leaves | Time Spent
|Raking and bagging leaves||15 hours|
|Shredding leaves (no raking)||2.5 leaves|
But even if it wasn’t more time efficient, I’d still do it.
2Use Leaves as Mulch and Insulation
By ‘mulch’ we mean a natural material used to protect garden beds. This could be whole or shredded leaves. I like to use shredded leaves simply because they break down faster and there’s less risk of them forming a water-tight barrier over the soil.
Fall leaves can be used to insulate flower and veggie beds in the winter. Before decomposition, they will help keep moisture in, insulate plant roots, prevent soil erosion, and suppress weeds. As they gradually break down, they provide nutritional, soil-enriching goodness.
A depth of 2-3 inches is commonly recommended for whole leaves. If leaves are shredded, you can go deeper because rain can still get through as needed.
You can also use clumps of leaves to cover and insulate hardy but vulnerable perennials and winter veggies.
3Balance Your Compost Pile
A healthy compost pile needs both greens and browns. This article has all the basics for getting started with compost.
Greens are the fruit and veggie scraps. Browns are carbon-rich materials including fallen leaves. To avoid running short of browns, I like to keep a big container of shredded leaves by my composter tumbler (shown above) so I can add them as needed throughout the year.
This is also helpful for winter composting.
4 Make Leaf Mold
I have no idea why it has this name because it does not sound very appealing, but leaf mold is the simplest thing to make—it’s just leaves—and does great things for your garden.
Take a pile of leaves-either shredded or not—but shredded will decompose faster–and, place them in something like this DIY hardware cloth yard waste bin so rain can reach them.
Depending on the type and size of leaves, in months or a year, the leaves will decompose, leaving you with earthy, soil-like goodness for the garden.
Seriously, the first time you do this, take a before photo. Last year I piled them up in fall and found this beautiful pile of compost awaiting me in spring. It was garden magic. And couldn’t be easier.
Once decomposed, leaf mold can be added to your garden beds as mulch to protect and gradually feed the soil.
5Support Life in the Garden
It’s impossible to emphasis this enough: every living thing that brings our gardens and nature to life has to survive the winter in one form or another.
A “clean” garden offers nothing to sustain them. A garden with old perennial growth, seed pods, decaying branches, and lots of leaves covering the soil offers what they need.
To us it might look like a pile of leaves and may be covered in snow. For the animals, insects, microbes, and more, it’s food and habitat to sustain them during the long winter months.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do fall leaves rob the soil of nitrogen?
Because fallen leaves are high in carbon, it is assumed that they will take nitrogen from the soil during the decomposition process. While they do, in fact, take up some nitrogen, it is just temporary. Once cycled through, nitrogen is returned to the earth. And, in the process, more nitrogen is added.
Compost & Soil Tips
Garden Soil 101
Soil | The upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.
Mulch | Placed on soil, organic mulch can protect soil, retain moisture, and gradually fertilize the garden.
Leaves | Finely chopped fall leaves make excellent mulch.
Leaf Mold | Decomposed fall leaves beneficial to soil structure.
Compost | Decomposed organic matter providing nutrients for the garden.
Potting Mix | Contains no soil: designed to optimize plant growth in pots.
Seed Starting Mix | A lightweight potting mix for sowing seeds in containers.
Soil pH | Knowing your level (which may vary) is informational, not a call to action. Most soils fall in the range of 5 to 8 and accommodate a wide range of plants.
Free Soil Calculator Tool | Estimate how much you need and what it will cost
Empress of Dirt
Fall Gardening Checklist
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~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛