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Using Leaves in the Garden: 7 FREE Ways to Improve the Soil

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Using leaves in the garden is a smart way to make use of a free and readily available resource. When the seasons change and the neighborhood trees begin to drop their leaves, take a clue and gather that organic matter for making your own leaf mold!

fall leaves in bright fall colors

 

For years we lived in a rural area that meant a longish drive on a country road to get home. In the autumn, one resident on this winding country road – a stranger to us – seemed almost to wait for fall leaves. As soon as the oak leaves started dropping, the homeowner started raking. And piling. And burning. The damp leaves would sometimes smolder for days, filling our canyon with a smoky haze.

At the time, I didn’t stop to introduce myself or suggest alternatives; I just grumbled as I drove by. Shame on me. Now I realize that she probably didn’t know what an asset she had right there in her yard.

Using leaves in the garden – free organic matter

While those leaves were burning just down the road, I was doing my best to gather up as many fall leaves as I could. Fallen leaves are a terrific resource for gardeners. If you’ve got fall leaves beginning to drop don’t view them as a nuisance to get rid of as quickly as possible. Look at them as an asset falling from above.

You can use leaves in the garden as mulch and add them to your compost, but even if you don’t plan to use them, don’t let this abundant source of organic matter go to waste; call a friend! Put them in biodegradable leaf bags and deliver them to your favorite gardener. I guarantee he or she will be thrilled at the opportunity to make some leaf mold for their garden.

If space is a problem for you, consider shredding the leaves. They’ll take up much less real estate and break down even more quickly. There are fancy leaf shredders that are made just for this, but you’ll save yourself some cash by using your lawn mower.

Simply pile the leaves in a flat area and mow right over them. The mower blade will quickly shred the leaves. A lawn mower bag makes it easier to gather the shredded leaves. Use the shredded leaves just as you would use whole leaves in the garden.

Need more ideas for using leaves in the garden? Read on!

Rake them, pile them, and jump in them

The original bounce house, made by Mother Nature. Bonus: Jumping on the pile helps to break down the leaves for mulch and using otherwise in the garden.

fall leaves in a pile with a leaf rake

Fall leaves for mulch

In the fall, while my neighbor down the road was smoking up the joint, I piled semi-crushed leaves 6-12″ deep around the base of my raspberries. Sure, a few blew away. But come springtime, those leaves had completely broken down into a rich leaf mold. And the soil around the base of each plant was soft and rich and weed free.

Using leaves in the garden around plants enriches the soil as it holds down weeds. Plus, the resulting leaf mold helps to retain water.

You can pile leaves on all of your vacant garden beds, too. By springtime that organic matter will be largely decomposed, resulting in a lovely leaf mold that will boost soil quality.

Protect tender plants

You can help insulate tender plants from the ravages of winter by piling on leaves. This doesn’t mean you can grow bananas in Alaska, but if you have some specimens that are borderline for your growing zone, surrounding them with dry leaves will provide a bit of protection.

Simply cover low-growing plants with leaves. For taller plants, create a wire cage around the plant and fill that with leaves.

Make a lasagna bed

No need to plant anything in it; just get it started. Come springtime you’ll have a beautiful bed in which to plant veggies. The leaves will have transformed into a lovely leaf mold that will improve your soil’s structure.

Organic matter

If you don’t have a garden space that would benefit from mulch right now, you can add them to your regular compost pile and let it sit over the long winter months.

Crispy fall leaves are an excellent source of carbon to add to the compost pile. I always seem to have plenty of nitrogen additives for the compost, but have a harder time acquiring a carbon source. If you have a similar problem fall leaves might be the answer.

brown fall leaves in a puddle

Leaf mold

You can also just make a big pile of leaves and let Mother Nature do the rest.

By springtime, that pile of leaves will be greatly reduced in size and you’ll have wonderful leaf mold to add to your garden. To prevent leaf piles from blowing away, cover with a tarp tacked down at the edges with rocks or bricks.

Don’t want to use plastic? You can use an old cotton sheet. (Just be aware that it will start to decompose.)

Feed your worms

Depending on the size of your vermicomposter, this won’t take care of a yard full of leaves, but the worms will absolutely go to town on what you offer.

Green waste

If all else fails, and you really, truly can’t find something better to do with the abundance of leaves, bundle them up in biodegradable bags and send them to your localgreen waste facility.

Your turn: How do you use leaves in the garden?

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

9 comments… add one
  • Sheryl Sep 30, 2013, 2:16 pm

    I used to live in a place with a similar situation – my neighbor would rake up all her leaves and burn them. When I complained, she told me she had a permit from the fire department. The smell and the smoke were too much to bear if the wind blew in the wrong direction (which it usually did. Go figure).

  • Laura Jan 28, 2014, 2:17 pm

    We use them for mulch and lasagna gardening. For faster composing, run over them with a mower a few times. They’re shredded into much smaller pieces, which means easier handling and faster decomposition. If you don’t want to mulch with them, mow over them anyway and leave them right on the lawn. They provide important nutrients and are almost entirely broken down by spring if left in a thin mowed layer on the lawn.

  • Linda Thomson Sep 3, 2014, 2:33 am

    We just throw ours over the fence into the garden or mow them on the lawn because we live in the Sandhills of North Carolina and have more sand than soil! I have always loved to walk through leaves – I called it “crunching’ when I was a child.

  • ryan Sep 4, 2014, 8:22 am

    The number about how 6-12 inches of mulched leaves being completely composted by spring is very far from the truth.  In Michigan, that would never happen!

    • Kris Bordessa Sep 4, 2014, 8:25 am

      What would the leaves look like come Spring in Michigan? 

      • Jim Johns Sep 14, 2015, 3:47 am

        A three inch thick packed mass of leaves. Also, stand by to reseed your lawn.

  • Deborah Mileto Sep 14, 2015, 1:05 am

    We mulch our leaves….we have tonnes of them. Then they go into our gardens. My flowers bloom like crazy all through spring, summer and autumn. I also cover my vegetable garden to keep down the weeds and in spring rake up whatever may be left behind. Then it goes into the compost pile. Burning is wasteful.

    • Marge Mar 17, 2018, 10:46 am

      Ash from burned leaves would be great for all gardens, as well as ash from wood burning fireplaces.

  • Jeff Blackwell Sep 24, 2017, 11:44 pm

    I live in Houston, Texas and the lawn soil here id clay like. I’d like your recommendation[s] on how I can best break down the clay to a more nutrient soil. I want to be the best lawn on the block.

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