How to Recycle Leaves in Your Yard

Leaves are nature’s perfect mulch.

Every year, our friendly neighborhood shade trees remind us that Mother Nature has a mind of her own, as the leaves begin to flutter down and cover the ground like a crunchy snowstorm. Left to their own devices, those leaves would form a dense mat under the tree, choking out competing plants and breaking down to provide nutrients back to the tree.

It’s a brilliant system—if you’re a tree! But we homeowners—with our driveways, lawns, and gardens—find all those fallen leaves quite a nuisance.

Instead of sending your leaves to the landfill, consider recycling them to feed the plants in your garden. Leaves are a great, free source of nutrients and insulation for your garden if used correctly, and you can keep your lawn neat while still allowing nature to work its magic. Here’s how to make use of fallen leaves in your garden.

Mulch small amounts of leaves directly into your lawn.

Mulch Mowing

The easiest way to recycle fallen leaves is simply to leave them alone. Up to an inch or two of leaves can be mowed and left to break down in your lawn, adding nutrients and a bit of mulch to your lawn grass. Make sure your lawn mower has a mulching function and sharp blade, so that the leaves are thoroughly shredded and spread thinly.

Shredding Leaves

If you have large amounts of leaves, you can use them for other purposes in the garden, but they must first be shredded. Whole leaves (especially large ones) form an impenetrable, moldy mat that will suffocate nearby plants and make a mess. There are several ways to shred leaves:

Lawn Mower: Mow over leaves while on the ground with the lawn mower and either pick them up with the bag attachment or rake up after shredding.

String Trimmer: Rake up leaves and put them in a garbage can. Crank up your string trimmer and use it to shred the leaves while in the can.

Leaf Blower: Use the shred and vacuum feature on some leaf blowers.

Shredder: Run leaves through a commercial shredder.

Shredded leaves break down much faster.

Uses for Shredded Leaves

Once you’ve got a nice pile of shredded leaves, there are many great uses for them:

Compost Pile: Add shredded leaves to a compost pile. Shredded leaves are a great source of carbon for the compost pile. Layer them with nitrogen-rich waste such as leaf clippings, and keep some extra on hand to sprinkle over messy kitchen scraps.

Leaf Mold: Some gardeners like to process leaf compost separately to produce a super-rich mulch and soil additive called leaf mold.

Container booster: Fill your planting containers about half-full of tightly-packed leaves, then add regular potting soil and plants. The leaves will break down slowly and feed the plant, saving on the cost of potting soil.

Instant bulb bed: To create a bed of spring woodland bulbs such as daffodils, first layer shredded leaves and topsoil, then place a layer of bulbs, then cover with layers of leaves and topsoil to about 8”- 10” deep.

Leaves are great for suppressing weeds under shrubs.

Mulch: Spread shredded leaves around shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens to use as Mulch. I like to use leaves in areas that need deep mulch, such as back behind large shrubs where it’s hard to keep weeds under control. Since leaves tend to blow in the wind, you may find that your mulch migrates back into the lawn on windy days! If this is a problem in your yard, try sprinkling the mulch with water or adding a thin layer of regular wood mulch, pine straw, or topsoil on top.

Gardening Tip

Many tree leaves (including black walnut, eucalyptus, and sycamore) beat the competition by releasing chemicals that inhibit the sprouting and growth of seeds. If you’re planting new seeds or transplanting seedlings, hold off on the leaf mulch until the plants are established.

Garden blanket: Mound leaves around and over tender perennials and shrubs to provide extra winter insulation. In the spring, gradually remove the leaves to allow the soil to warm. You can also move containers of perennials and shrubs to a sheltered area and bank with leaves for the winter. Keep some extra leaves on hand to cover plants in case of a surprise spring freeze.

Amend soil: Leaves are full of nutrients and very beneficial additives to both clay and sandy soil. Use leaf compost, or simply spread a thick layer of shredded leaves on your vegetable garden to be tilled into the soil. The leaves will break down slowly in the ground and substantially improve the quality of your garden soil.

Some gardeners even raid their neighbors’ leaf piles!

Leaf Recycling Tips

A few parting thoughts as you go to work recycling those leaves:

  • Leaves are often acidic. Check your soil pH and amend with lime, if necessary, to keep the pH neutral.
  • Avoid mulching with tree seeds, such as maple tree “helicopters” and oak tags. You’ll end up with a lot of sprouts to pull!
  • Tougher leaves, such as oak leaves, are slower to break down. For this reason, you may choose to compost them separately or mix them in with other types, keeping in mind that some will break down faster than others.

Further Information


  1. Buy a 50 ft. roll of turkey wire 4 ft. high with 2″ x 4″ spacing. Cut it in three 15 ft. lengths with 2″ extra wire sticking out at one end to hook onto the other end. Bring the ends together to form a large cage about 4 ft. in diameter. Use the 2″ piece to hook the ends together from top to bottom. Now weave vertical blind slats in the fence wire horizontally all the way around from top to bottom to make a large basket. This 50 ft. roll will make you three baskets. Be sure you locate each basket on level ground. Fill each basket with leaves,any kind except pine needles, and keep adding leaves for at least 2 weeks as they settle. This is very, very important because the leaves will pack down like a sponge. At the end of 2 weeks put at least 6 inches of planting soil on top covering the entire surface over the leaves. You must plant now because the weight of the soil will press the leaves down further and it will be hard to plant reaching over the fence wire after it settles. It will continue to settle for about 2 to 6 weeks depending on the type of leaves and the amount of rain. It should stop settling at about a 3 ft. height or waist height, ideal for those using wheelchairs. After the soil has settled to this point cut the top 10 inches of the fence wire off leaving 2 inch pieces sticking up all the way around, about 90 pieces. Bend these down inside to avoid being cut by the sharp ends. Save the part you cut off for use later. In 2 to 3 years it will have settled to about 2 ft. or less. This is slow composting also known as anaerobic digestion. In the end you end up with good humus. When you are ready to start over just lift the wire cage off leaving a large cake of humus, set the cage in a new location, put the 10 inch piece back on top, fill it with leaves, keep adding leaves for 2 weeks, add 6 inches of soil and you’ve started all over again. Plant.

  2. we have about 22 50 lb bags leaves from last fall are almost composted and mushy due to sitting all winter some may have bugs and other insects in them..Is it best to get rid of them to landfill..i dont want to use them if the bugs centipeeds, etc..are in mulch what should we do ?

  3. I planted mum seeds last spring and now have massive shrubs covered with great red flowers, but there is a problem. The plants look like “donuts” with the blooms lying on the ground and the center of the plant being a bare “hole”. There seem to be individual plants (or multiple root systems), and when I lifted the flowers to check the roots the stalks simply broke off.
    Are these plants worth saving or should I just start over next year? What would you suggest to save them?

  4. I would like to know how to get rid of all the black walnuts that I have in my yard.Should I put them out in the trash or the recycle ?

  5. If you know someone in the country that has chickens give the bags of leaves to them. My chickens love to scratch around in them for the bugs. They shred the leaves up and add their manure to it for great compost.

  6. I have found a great way to keep squirrels and rabbits from digging up my planted tulips bulbs.
    After I plant the bulbs in the fall I cover the area with a fine wire screen which I secure to the flower bed. In the spring when I see the tulip sprouts coming up I remove the screen.


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