What to Do with Fallen Leaves

Organic Gardening - Uses for Fallen Leaves

Colorful fall leaves
Colorful fall leaves. Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation

The crunch of fallen leaves signals sweaters and pumpkin spice for most people, but for gardeners and landscapers, it can mean another layer of work. Perspective is everything, though, because in the organic garden, fallen leaves are like free garden supplies raining from the heavens! Make your leaves useful this fall by building on their natural purpose as ground cover and mulch. Here are some of the best ways to use fallen leaves in the organic garden.

Mower Mulch

As the last of the crops are nearing harvest for most gardening zones, mulch is an important part of the gardening process, keeping roots warmed while temperatures cool. Using leaves as mulch takes the problem of seemingly ever-growing unsightly mounds of leaves and turns it into a seemingly never-ending stream of beneficial mulch. It’s perfect for an edible landscape gardener who wants to combine curb appeal with practical organic gardening!

A mower with a mulching blade and bag is ideal for leaf mulch, so all you have to do is drive over the lawn and collect the clippings. If you don’t have that, mover mulch can be made by gathering the leaves into a pile and mowing over them.

Alternatively, just mowing the leaves as they lie and allowing the mulch to shoot out and fall to the roots of the grass can help make a healthier, well-fed lawn in the spring, no raking or piling needed!

Compost Starter

A good compost will have a mix of materials, as well as aeration to allow oxygen access to most of the pile. Leaves help accomplish both of these tasks. If you’ve already established your compost bin, simply shred or mulch leaves up and add them in as brown material. If you’re just starting, leaves can provide an excellent base for making a compost bin.

Compost is decomposed plant material, sometimes aided by intentionally-added worms and other times simply by existing bacteria and natural systems. All compost bins need access to oxygen throughout the bin, a good mix of material, and time.

Alongside shredded leaves – full leaves will just act as a barrier – use the last of the grass clippings, food scraps, and straw or hay.  

Soil Amendment

If you’re not up for a full compost but still want to make the most of your leaf bounty, leaf mold might be the best use for your leaves. Instead of mixing them with other materials to make a generalized compost, leaf mold is created with simply leaves and water (and time for decomposition) and is a strong soil amendment material.

After gathering your leaves up, put them in one place where they can stay for the season and up to a full year. Keep piling the leaves there and water them well, regularly. The breakdown will happen faster if they are already shredded or mulched. Either way, in the end you’ll have a dark, soft leaf mold to add to your soil.

Remember that soil amendment is a slow and steady process, so leaf mold should be worked into the soil alongside other gardening methods like composting and fertilizing.

Leaf mold won’t feed the soil, but it will improve moisture retention and overall soil quality.

Permaculture Ground Cover

The intricate processes of nature always amaze me. Bursting summer fruits fall to the ground, sinking into the soil to be dormant for the winter – meanwhile, fall leaves blanket the ground to protect them until spring warms the soil for growth. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Left on the ground, leaves overlap an form a pretty incredible barrier for excessive moisture and even some cold. If you don’t mind the way it looks once the vibrant colors have faded, fallen leaves can be a benefit to the garden all on their own.

This hands-off approach that allows nature to do its work blends well with a permaculture approach to organic gardening. Perennials – both shrubs and trees – provide the mainstay of support for the annuals and herbs growing around them.

As their leaves fall to the ground, weeds are blocked and a natural ground cover is formed.

No matter what you do with your leaves this year, don’t forget that the garden needs them far more than the garbage man. Save your plastic bags for spring cleaning – the leaves belong on the ground!