Leave the leaves! There are so many beneficial uses for fall leaves including mulching garden beds, insulating plants from damaging winter conditions, creating nutritious compost, and providing essential food and habitat for living things.
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Using Leaves in The Garden
While it’s catchy to say, “leave the leaves,” we don’t mean it literally. There will still be some raking to do each fall but not the same way we’re accustomed to.
The idea is, by hanging onto fall leaves in your garden, there is an opportunity to benefit the local ecosystem.
In the past we would send bagged leaves away in autumn and buy mulch or compost in spring. In other words, give away what you later buy.
The new approach is to make use of the leaves from our trees to not only save time and money but improve the garden as well.
Yes, fall leaves on the ground provide numerous benefits to the garden both as a source of nutrients and structure for the soil as well as food and habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
Yes, to get the benefits from fall leaves, you will need to manage the volumes, particularly on grass lawns. If the leaves are too deep, they matt together and block rain and air from getting into the ground below both slowing decomposition and potentially harming the soil or grass.
Leave the Leaves
In recent years programs like the Don’t Bag It initiative in Texas are popping up as we recognize how valuable leaves are and how wasteful it is to send them “away.”
The benefits fall into two categories: good for the soil and good for the animals that dwell on the ground—two things that are deeply interconnected. And, it’s less effort.
Fall leaves also provide “soft landings” for animals. Think of moth and butterfly caterpillars that start out eating leaves high up in tree canopies. The next part of their life cycles are spent in the soil. To get there, they drop from the trees to the ground. Bare lawn will not sustain them. They need immediate access to suitable plants and decaying leaves to survive the fall and winter months.
Leaves help because they are organic matter vital for plant and animal life.
On the ground, they protect the soil, insulate plant roots, and provide food and habitat for a wide range of animals at various life stages. One basic example is how leaves provide a soft landing spot for caterpillars hatched in tree canopies that eventually must drop to the ground to continue their life cycles.
As leaves decompose, they contribute to soil structure, help retain moisture and prevent erosion. Microbes, fungi, worms, and various bacteria convert them back into essential plant nutrients.
The benefits are so good, it’s kind of crazy that we ever thought it was better to send them away.
Plus, it’s much less time and work to keep leaves right where we need them, providing perfect soil food.
Yes, leaves make excellent mulch. 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.
Whether or not it is safe to keep diseased leaves in the garden is a hotly contested topic without a single answer. The best recommendation is to determine what the specific disease is and find out if the process of natural decomposition will deal with it. Some diseases affecting tree leaves are so widespread, it would be futile to think sending away some bags of fallen leaves will resolve it. Another less rampant disease may be contained by bagging and solarizing the diseased leaves.
Invasive Species Alert
As invasive species such as jumping worms (Amynthas spp., Metaphire spp., Pheretima spp.) gradually appear in new regions, we have to be mindful about ways we may inadvertently assist the spread.
Any area with a known infestation of jumping worms should avoid distributing locally-sourced leaves, potting mix, mulch, compost, and potted nursery plants. It’s a big ask, but perhaps the only way to slow or stop what may be a devastating invasion.
Tips For Using Leaves in the Garden
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.
On the downside, grinding the leaves may very well affect some of the wildlife we’re trying to assist. I have no solution for this but certainly the overall benefit outweighs the negatives.
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. I just try to wait as close to first frost as possible—it’s a guessing game, really.
Mulching 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
|Shredding leaves (no raking)
But even if it did not save time, I would 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 as a natural fertilizer.
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 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 or “mould” 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.
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.
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. Without plants and leaves on the ground, they have nowhere to go.
- Soft Landings: Diverse Native Plantings Under Keystone Trees | Heather Holm
This short video by Maxwell Helmberger nicely illustrates some of the important stuff we never see below our feet.
ListenNEW! Click play to listen:
Compost & Soil Tips
Garden Soil Tips
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
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