Look for! Right now, the secret to a stronger, healthier garden is falling all around you. Fall leaves are nature’s mulch, soil amendment and fertilizer, all in one little package. And the only thing you need to do is pick them up and add them to your soil or compost bin.
Using leaves to enhance your garden is perhaps the most underused gardening technique. People spend hundreds of dollars each year on compost, mulch, soil amendments and fertilizers, when they could just be picking up the gold (and the orange, red and brown) that lie around. in their garden.
Incorporating leaves into the soil mimics what Mother Nature does in the forest. The leaves fall off and over time and weather conditions decay into leaf litter. This litter adds microbial life to the soil, improves its structure and water-holding capacity, helps prevent erosion, and provides some phosphorus and potassium (among other nutrients).
When you use leaves in your garden, you also get these benefits. And did I mention they’re free?
Opt for the mold
As the wet leaves decompose, they turn into this wonderful substance called leaf mold. This dark, crumbly material looks and smells like compost, which is essentially what it is: composted leaves. It’s good for the soil, which means it’s good for your plants. Leaf mold is your target.
How to shred them
To speed up the process of making leaf mold, the leaves should be shredded into small pieces. Depending on the tree species, intact leaves can take a long time to break down, longer than a single winter. In addition, piles of whole leaves carpet and drain water, preventing rain and snow from reaching the ground. The smaller the pieces, the faster they rot.
You can chop them in several ways. A grinder is the simplest and most efficient, of course, but there are others. You can mow them with a mulching mower that has a bag to collect the pieces. Or you can put piles of leaves in a 55 gallon trash can (up to ¾ full) and use a trimmer to break them up. Whichever method you choose, be sure to wear work gloves and eye protection.
It is easier to shred the leaves when they are dry and not wet.
How to use them
Add to your garden beds. There are two ways to use shredded leaves in flower beds: one as mulch, the other as a soil amendment.
In perennial beds, where it is difficult to dig without disturbing the roots of the plants, use the chopped leaves as mulch. Stack it no more than 3 inches deep. Take care that the mulch does not touch the crowns, stems or trunks of herbaceous plants, trees or shrubs, as such contact can be a vector for pests and diseases.
You can use them the same way in your vegetable beds, where the mulch will keep the bare soil from eroding. Mixing the leaves into the soil not only speeds up decomposition, but improves its consistency or loosening, lightening it so that there is less resistance for a plant’s growing roots. Leaf mold also retains moisture, so you’ll need to water less.
Condition your lawn. To condition your lawn, simply mow the leaves lying on it without the bag attached. Mow at a height of three inches and make sure the discharge chute blows the clippings onto the lawn, not onto impervious surfaces. If the leaf pieces are still large, mow them again. The small pieces will decompose over the winter and, combined with grass clippings, will add nitrogen and carbon to the soil.
Add to your compost pile. This is the easiest way to use them. Even if the leaves are dry, you can add them to your compost pile. To cook well, a compost heap needs plenty of dry “brown” material, a source of carbon, to mix with the “green” material, a source of nitrogen. The leaves are ideal for this purpose.
Protect overwintering potted plants. This is the only time whole, undamaged leaves work to your advantage. Hardy plants such as trees, shrubs and perennials can overwinter outdoors in their containers, but the roots must be isolated from freeze/thaw cycles, which can be deadly. Covering the plants with leaves protects them from temperature fluctuations. You will need plenty, preferably dry.
Group all the plants together in a protected place and pile the leaves over, under and around the plants, covering not only the pot, but the whole plant. Don’t pack them too tightly; air and moisture must reach the plants. You can cover the whole thing with chicken wire to prevent the leaves from blowing away, if necessary.
Do you have too many sheets to use right away? Trick question! For gardening, there are not too many leaves. Store them in large plastic or paper leaf bags. Or rake them in a remote spot in your garden and cover them with a tarp. Moisture that collects under the tarp will help the leaves rot. You will find uses for them in the upcoming spring and summer.
Don’t throw away free money. Instead of wrapping your leaves up for disposal – or worse, burning them – use them to create a healthier, more resilient garden.