How to Turn Dead Leaves Into Healthy Flowerbeds

Compost bins

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Gardeners who pay for leaf bags and leaf-cleanup services are losing money in two ways: by paying for unnecessary goods and services and by getting rid of a free organic enrichment material for the garden. And once gardeners experience the results of the rich nutrients dead leaves can provide in the garden, they might end up seeking out their neighbors’ leaf bags at the curb. Unlocking the benefits of dead leaves is fairly simple, but it does take a little planning and strategy.

Leaf Raking and Cleanup

Gardeners who dread the chore of raking and leaf cleanup should reevaluate their yard tools. The best rakes are those with steel tines, which capture leaves and twigs easily without the need to apply downward pressure. Steel tines also yield when one encounters rocks or other debris in the yard. Choose a model with at least a 24-inch head to capture more debris with fewer swipes. Moreover, a telescopic shrub rake helps gardeners obtain the tidiest results in their yards. These rakes have fewer tines to reach between crevices in the landscape where leaves often gather.

Another essential yard tool to make leaf cleanup easier is a pair of leaf scoops. These plastic claws have straps that attach to a person's hands, allowing them to pick up several times the volume of leaves they could hold with gloved hands. These scoops also do springtime duties, such as spreading compost and mulch.

Mulching With Leaves

Gardeners who want to use leaves as mulch should shred them with a lawn mower, string trimmer, or leaf shredder first. This prevents the leaves from creating a dense mat that blocks oxygen from the soil. Then, the shredded leaves can be spread on your garden beds—or even left on your grass as long as they don't cover the grass blades—to improve the soil.

A mulching mower with a bag attachment has the added benefit of mixing in grass clippings with the shredded leaves, providing gardeners with an almost perfect ratio of green nitrogenous material and brown carboniferous material for the compost bin.

Composting Leaves

Shredded leaves can make up about two-thirds of the volume of a compost pile. The rest should be composed of high-nitrogen green matter, such as grass clippings and food scraps. If you add too many leaves, your pile might become “cold,” meaning the temperature won’t heat up enough to decompose the materials.

Still, you should not discard your leaf bounty if you end up with too much for your compost pile. Instead, save the leaves in a dry holding area, such as a garbage bag in a garage or shed, until the spring when you'll have wet grass clippings again and will need to balance them in your compost pile with the dry leaves.

Starting a Leafy Lasagna Garden 

Is your soil a plant-killing zone? By layering nutrient-rich ingredients into what's called a lasagna garden, you can create a spongy loam flowerbed that will surpass any fertilizer in plant growth potential. 

Fall is a great time to start your lasagna garden. Let leaves lie where they land on the garden site, and add to the abundance by dumping more leaves on your future flowerbed. Over the winter, add a green layer of vegetable scraps to heat things up and speed decomposition (much like a compost pile). Then, continue to alternate layers of carbon-rich dead leaves with nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps and grass clippings. Finish with a layer of topsoil, and then you're ready to add plants.

Making Leaf Mold

Making leaf mold—crumbly decomposed leaves—is an easy way to capture the nutrients found in dead leaves without the bother of balancing or turning a compost pile. Creating a leaf mold pile is also a good way to deal with an excess of dead leaves that don't fit in your compost pile. Gardeners can pile dead leaves as high as 3 feet deep in an unused corner of the yard to begin a leaf mold pile. Water the leaf pile initially, and check it every few months to ensure it isn’t drying out.

Microorganisms can take as long as two years to completely break down a large leaf pile. But if you start a new pile each fall, you can guarantee a constant supply of leaf mold. Use leaf mold in the garden the same way you use compost: as a soil amendment, potting soil ingredient, or part of a mix to start seedlings.