5 Ways to Use Autumn Leaves in the Garden

Person gathering fall leaves with hands

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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 to enhance your garden instead of treating them as trash? Leaves contain a lot of carbon that when broken down makes great mulch, compost, and even lawn fertilizer.

The key to the successful use of leaves in your landscape is to shred them first, which you can do with a mulching lawnmower or a leaf 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 healthy for lawns to be covered with a mat of whole leaves.

Here are five ways to use shredded leaves around your landscape.

Create Compost

Leaves are a great source of brown, high-carbon material for the compost pile. Simply alternate layers of shredded leaves with the regular green materials you 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. Let all of that sit over the winter. Aerate or turn the pile as needed, and by planting time in the spring, you'll have finished compost.

Make Leaf Mold

Leaf mold is a wonderful soil amendment that is made from nothing more than fall leaves with a layer of garden soil or finished compost. Layer the shredded leaves and compost and let the pile sit 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 soil.

Use as Free 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, helps to maintain a consistent soil temperature, and limits weed seed germination. As a bonus, the leaves add nutrients to the soil as they break down.

Hoard for Springtime

Once all the leaf cleanup is finished in the fall, you might not want to see another leaf again. But when spring rolls around and you're in the garden pruning and weeding again, you'll have an excess of greens for the compost pile but not enough dry material, such as fall leaves. However, if you've thought ahead and hoarded a garbage bag or two of shredded dry leaves over the winter, you won't have any problem making perfect compost in the spring. The dry leaves will help to prevent your compost from becoming a soggy mess.

Supplement Lawns

There is no reason to rake all the leaves off your lawn if you have a mulching lawn mower. If you run over them with a mower to shred them into small pieces, they'll break down over the winter, providing your soil with nutrients and suppressing weeds. If you do this once a week until the leaves have finished falling, you likely won't have to rake a single leaf, and your lawn will look better for it next spring and summer. However, keep in mind this requires a mulching lawnmower, which cuts grass clippings into small enough pieces that can be left on the lawn rather than being collected and bagged. The same theory works with leaves. Most modern lawnmowers have the mulching capability, and older mowers can be converted to mulchers by installing a mulching blade.