What to Do With Dead Leaves in the Garden

Leaf Cleanup Yields Mulch, Leaf Mold, and Fertilizer for Flowers

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. Once flower gardeners experience the results of the rich nutrients dead leaves can provide in the garden, they may be seeking out their neighbors’ leaf bags at the curb.

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.

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.

The last essential yard tool to make leaf cleaning easier is a pair of leaf scoops. These plastic claws have straps that attach to a gardener’s hands, allowing him to pick up several times the volume of leaves he could with gloved hands. These scoops also do spring duties like spreading compost and mulch.

Mulch with Leaves

Gardeners who 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. 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 ready for the compost bin.

Start a Leafy Lasagna Garden 

Is your soil a hardpan plant-killing zone? Forget digging, double-digging, or any other activity that might send you to the chiropractor. By layering nutrient-rich ingredients into a lasagna garden that you would otherwise discard, you can create a spongy loam that will surpass any fertilizer in plant growth potential. 

Fall is a natural time to start your lasagna garden. Let leaves lie where they fall, and add to the abundance by dumping more leaves on the site of your future garden. Over the winter, add a green layer of vegetable scraps to heat things up. Continue to layer the carbon-rich dead leaf layer with the nitrogen-rich kitchen scrap and grass clippings layer. Finish with a layer of topsoil, and add plants. The lasagna garden smothers leaves, feeds garden plants, and encourages biodiversity. Everyone wins. 

Compost Leaves

Shredded leaves should provide about 2/3 the volume in a compost pile. The rest is comprised of high-nitrogen green matter, like grass clippings and kitchen waste. If you have too many leaves, your pile may be “cold,” in that the temperature won’t heat up enough to hasten decomposition. Still, you should not discard your leaf bounty: instead, save the leaves in a holding area until your lawn mowing picks up and you need some carbon-rich material to counterbalance the odoriferous breakdown of nitrogen. Gardeners with too many leaves also have the option of creating a leaf mold pile.

Make Leaf Mold

Leaf mold 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 in the compost pile for gardeners with an abundance of deciduous trees and little grass.

Gardeners can pile dead leaves as high as three feet deep in an unused corner of the yard to begin a leaf mold pile. Unlike compost piles, leaf mold piles decompose without generating high temperatures, so it’s OK to keep a leaf mold pile in a dark corner of the yard, or even under a deck. 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 a large leaf pile down into humus, but if the gardener starts a new pile each fall, he can guarantee a constant supply of this spongy material. Gardeners can use leaf mold in the garden the same way they use compost: as a soil amendment, potting soil ingredient, or as part of a mix to start seedlings.