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.
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.
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.
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.
- Leaf Shredding (video)
- Leaf Compost (video)
- Tip for Bagging Leaves (video)
- How to Make Compost For Your Garden (video)
- How To Build a Compost Bin (article)
- Using Mulch In Your Garden (article)
- Allelopathic Plants: Nature’s Weedkillers (Earth Friendly Gardening)
- What Nutrients Can Be Found in Compost? (article)