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How To Use Fall Leaves in Your Garden

Updated Oct 28, 2022

Updated Oct 28, 2022

Home > Lawn > How To Use Fall Leaves in Your Garden

Raking leaves from your lawn is crucial to the health of your grass and perennials. A thick layer of leaves can inhibit sunlight from reaching the plants and create a moist, matted surface prone to fungal disease.

Many homeowners rake bag after bag of autumn leaves, only to send them out with the weekly trash pickup. However, when used properly, that crunchy orange, yellow, and brown foliage can do wonders for your garden throughout fall and winter.

3 Ways To Use Autumn Leaves in Your Garden

Using fall leaves in your garden is a fantastic way to clean up your lawn while keeping yard waste out of landfills. The following sections discuss three ways to use fall leaves in your garden. We’ll explain tips and tricks for turning fallen foliage into nutritious compost and mulch for your flower beds, vegetable garden, and all the spaces in between.

Mulch

Mulch is a material applied to the top of soil to improve its health. Different types of mulch, like pine needles, wood chips, bark, and leaves, help maintain soil temperature and water retention while inhibiting weed seed growth during the cool seasons.

Shredded leaves are an excellent organic mulch for your garden beds. Leaf mulch will keep your precious perennials warm with insulative qualities throughout winter. The leaves will also release vital nutrients as they decompose, improving the garden’s soil structure and creating healthy, rich earth for the next growing season.

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Creating leaf mulch is easy, especially if you have a leaf shredder. You want to avoid using whole leaves to mulch your garden because they’ll mat together and create a soggy, wet layer that smothers the soil. A leaf shredder will chop dry leaves into smaller pieces perfect for mulching.

This video from Beginner’s Garden shows how to use a leaf shredder to mulch fall leaves:

If you don’t have a leaf shredding machine, no problem. Your lawn mower is a handy tool for mulching the fall foliage around your yard.

mulching lawn mower is a machine designed to shred leaves by holding the debris in the mowing deck for a few seconds. If you have a mulching mower, we suggest using a bag attachment to catch the leaf clippings once they’re shredded. After mowing, the leaves will be shredded, bagged, and ready for mulching.

Even if your lawn mower isn’t designed for mulching, you can still shred leaves. The University of Missouri suggests adjusting the mower to its highest setting and going over the leaves repeatedly in different directions. This will produce the confetti-like material needed for mulch. You can either bag the shredded leaves or leave some on the lawn for the winter season. They’ll break down into the yard, improving soil structure and adding nutrients as they decompose.

Compost

Composting involves recycling organic materials like food scraps, grass clippings, and dried leaves to produce a rich organic fertilizer. Beneficial organisms break down the materials in the pile until a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance called humus remains. This substance is sometimes called “black gold” by gardeners and farmers for its ability to improve soil moisture retention, aeration, and plant root penetration.

Good compost generally needs green and brown ingredients for the best results. “Green” ingredients like grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds contain nitrogen. These materials are also fresher and wetter, which encourages microorganisms to multiply. “Brown” ingredients like dried leaves, paper, and tree branches are high in carbon, which feeds organisms throughout the decomposition process.

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Fallen leaves are an excellent source of brown organic matter for your compost pile. Along with ample carbon for healthy composting, they contain mineral elements like phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen essential for plant life. In fact, most tree leaves contain twice the mineral content of manure.

Here are the steps to composting autumn leaves:

  1. Prepare a compost bin or wired area big enough for a 3-by-3-foot pile.
  2. Create a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves.
  3. Add a 2-inch layer of green ingredients like vegetable waste or grass clippings.
  4. Sprinkle in some native soil to speed up the composting process.
  5. Turn the pile every week or so to encourage evenly distributed decomposition.
  6. Water the pile with a hose every few days, or enough to keep it evenly moist.

Leaf Mold

Another way to use leaf litter in your garden is to turn it into leaf mold. This special compost consists only of leaves, meaning no green composting ingredients are involved in the process. Traditional compost piles heat up as the mix of carbon and nitrogen is broken down by bacteria. On the other hand, leaf mold is created by decomposing fungi gradually breaking down the leaves.

Another difference is that leaf mold takes much longer to develop. After one to three years, what was once a pile of leaves will transform into a heap of rich humus that looks like crumbled chocolate cake.

Making leaf mold is simple. Start by filling a 3-by-3-foot container or enclosed area with leaves. Shredded or whole leaves work for this process, so there’s no need to mulch the debris beforehand. Store the container in a shaded area out of the way. Unlike compost, leaf mold doesn’t require frequent turning for the best results. Your best bet is to leave the pile alone and let the fungi work their magic. And that’s it! After a year or so, you’ll have a batch of rich leaf mold to use in your garden.

Like compost, leaf mold is an excellent soil amendment. Spread a 3-inch layer of completed leaf mold around your flower beds and veggie garden to improve soil fertility, structure, and moisture retention. The material will welcome earthworms and beneficial microbes that further enrich and aerate the soil.

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Final Thoughts

Now that you know all the great uses of fall leaves, you can let them work their magic in your flower beds and vegetable garden. Mulching leaves is an excellent way to turn bags full of debris into a functional insulator and soil amendment. Meanwhile, composting allows you to reduce food and yard waste by transforming it into a nutritious, organic fertilizer for your garden. Lastly, hands-off gardeners can utilize leaf mold to improve poor soils and attract beneficial microbes to their garden spaces. With these ideas in mind, you’ll close out fall with the tools you need for a flourishing garden.

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