How to Put Autumn Leaves to Work for You
When fall leaves start coming off the trees, many homeowners get a sense of dread because they’ll inevitably have to dispose of them. But what if those leaves are actually valuable?
What value do leaves have in the garden?
When mixed into soil, fall leaves:
- Add important nutrients like potassium and phosphorous
- Boost the microbial life of the soil
- Enhance the soil’s capacity for holding water
- Better the soil structure, or tilth
The best part is that leaves are FREE! Instead of bagging them to throw away, simply refocus that energy on using them in your garden. Here are five easy ways:
1. Mow Leaves Into the Yard
Shredding leaves in with the grass is a great way to add nutrients to the soil and reduce the need for packaged fertilizers in the future. The leaves add carbon to the soil while grass clippings add nitrogen. Quite a powerful combo!
To shred the leaves, simply use a mulching mower. If yours has a bag attachment, remove the bag and mow so that the clippings blow onto the grass rather than away from it. The mower height should be about 3 inches. If the leaves are still in large chunks after the first pass, take another pass. When all is said and done, the shredded leaves should not be deeper than ¾ of an inch on the grass. They will decompose into the soil over the winter and be gone by spring.
2. Incorporate Leaves Into Vegetable Garden Beds
After your vegetable beds are cleared out, consider covering them in whole or shredded leaves. The leaves will break down over the winter months so that anything left by spring can easily be mixed into the soil. Beds full of whole leaves may not be something you want to look at all winter long. If that’s the case, just shred them first.
No shredder? A 55-gallon garbage can and a weedwacker can get the job done. Simply fill the garbage can three-quarters full with leaves and put the string trimmer inside. Turn on the trimmer and move it through the leaves. Make sure to wear ear and eye protection.
3. Turn Leaves Into Leaf Mold
A black, nutrient-rich, soil-like matter made from wet leaves that have decomposed, leaf mold is an ideal mulch for plants. To make your own leaf mold, either pile the fallen leaves in an out-of-the-way spot where they won’t blow away, or create big 3- to 4-foot circles of chicken wire about 3 feet tall and pile the leaves inside. Since the goal is to have the leaves rot, you’ll want to wet them as you go. Speed up the process by stirring up the pile a few times over the winter.
4. Compost Leaves So They Break Down for Spring
When mixed into an existing compost pile, leaves will decompose over the winter months. However, stockpiling dry leaves for future use can be an even better option. Either pile them in a designated spot that is out of the way or load them into garbage bags for summer. While succulent green matter (nitrogen) for your compost pile is in abundance during warm-weather months, it requires “browns” or dried material (carbon) in order for the composting process to actively continue. These “browns” are not easily available in the summer.
5. Use Leaves to Protect Your Outdoor Potted Plants
Hardy potted plants that can be left outside when the weather turns cold should be sheltered on the east, west or north side of your home during the winter months. Simply gather the pots together against the house (under an overhang if possible) and cover the entire grouping with dried leaves. Don’t be shy. Pile the leaves over, under and in between the pots.
If wind is a problem, enclose the group of pots with chicken wire so the leaves will stay put. The leaves should be inches deep, completely protecting the pot and as much of the plant as possible. Using this method, even your terra-cotta pots can remain outside, as long as water is unable to penetrate and freeze.
When it comes to dealing with fallen leaves, burning them is possibly the worst thing you can do. Burning produces large amounts of smoke, which releases toxins into the air and affects those with respiratory issues. Leaf burning is also a fire hazard. Most municipalities have banned leaf burning for these reasons.