Using Autumn Leaves in the Garden

Rake and basket of leaves on a lawn

schulzie / iStock

There's something that doesn't feel right about leaves naturally falling from trees only to be stuffed into plastic garbage bags and dumped by the millions into landfills. Biodegradable paper leaf bags offer a partial solution, but wouldn't it be better to simply use those leaves instead of treating them as trash? Because leaves break down and contain a lot of carbon, they make great mulch, compost, and even lawn fertilizer.

The key to using leaves in your landscape is to shred them first, which you can do with a mulching lawnmower or a leaf vacuum mulcher. If you don't shred them, they won't completely break down over the winter, and you'll have to rake them up in the spring. It's also not good for lawns to be covered with a mat of whole leaves.


Autumn leaves, especially those that have been shredded by a lawnmower, are dream additions to the compost pile. Leaves are a great source of "brown," high-carbon material for the compost. Simply alternate layers of shredded leaves with the regular green materials you'd add to your compost pile, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, weeds, grass clippings, and plants that you pull out in your fall garden cleanup, and let it sit over the winter. Aerate or turn the pile when you think of it, and by planting time you'll have finished compost.

If you are a fan of lasagna gardening, also known as sheet composting, autumn leaves are a true gift. You can build a lasagna garden in the fall with your leaves and other compostables, let it sit over the winter, and plant in the new bed in the spring.

Make Leaf Mold

Leaf mold is a wonderful soil amendment that is made from nothing more than fall leaves with the occasional layer of garden soil or finished compost added. The pile sits for about a year, and when it's finished you have the perfect amendment for vegetable and flower gardens, as well as a fantastic addition to potting soils.

Create Mulch

After you shred the leaves, they can be used as an organic mulch in flower beds and vegetable gardens, around trees and shrubs, and in containers. Simply apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of shredded leaves to the beds, keeping the mulch from directly touching the stems and trunks of the plants. The mulch retains moisture in the soil, stays cool, and limits weed seed germination. As a bonus, the leaves add nutrients to the soil as they break down, and the worms and soil microorganisms work on them as well, resulting in lighter, fluffier soil over time.

Hoard Leaves

You may think that once all the leaf cleanup is finished, you'll never want to see another leaf again. But when spring rolls around, and you're out there weeding and deadheading and pruning again, you'll be adding all of those "greens" to the compost pile. At the same time, brown compost materials can be hard to come by in spring and summer. If you've thought ahead and hoarded a garbage bag or two in your garage over the winter, you won't have any problem making perfect compost in spring. It's much easier to dump a bag of leaves on the compost pile than to stand there shredding newspaper in an attempt to dry out soggy compost.


Simply mowing the leaves is the easiest solution, as it involves no raking whatsoever. There really is no scientific reason to rake all the leaves off the lawn. If you run over them with a mower, they'll break down over the winter, providing your soil with nutrients and shading the soil, which results in fewer lawn weeds to worry about next year. If you do this once a week until the leaves have finished falling, you won't have to rake a single leaf, and your lawn will look better for it next spring and summer.

Keep in mind that this requires a mulching lawnmower, which is designed to recirculate the grass clippings so they are cut into small pieces and can be left on the lawn rather than collected and bagged. The same design works with leaves. Most lawnmowers these days have mulching capability, and older mowers can be converted to mulchers by installing a mulching blade.