Several years ago I called an experienced arborist to a property I was working on. I showed him a tree that just did not look right. I had planned to enlarge the mulched ring around the tree and possibly give the tree some organic fertilizer and he gave me some simple, wise advice. “Go into the woods over there behind the property and scrape up some old leaves from the ground. Dump a wheelbarrow or so of this leaf mold around the tree, then put the mulch on top.” I did exactly as he said and realized leaves are nature’s mulch. Leaves provide everything the tree needs. No one ever fertilizes a forest. Leaves that are breaking down (known as “leaf mold”) are full of microscopic life including beneficial bacteria and fungi that will enrich the soil and nourish the tree. And so began a whole new way of thinking about leaves for me. Ever since, I use fall leaves everywhere in my yard and gardens.
Somehow we have been taught to think of leaves as something to “get rid of.” We rake them up, bag them and throw them away. We pay crews to use loud, gas powered machines to blow them off our garden beds and vacuum them up into trucks and cart them to the dump. Many towns spend a lot of money to take leaves from yards every fall. What if we could learn to recycle these, right on our property?
Here are several ways I use leaves on my property and I hope to encourage you to do too.
1. I use leaves to top dress vegetable beds in late fall after a few hard frosts. I especially top dress my garlic crop which I plant in late fall. Leaves keep the beds mulched-for free. This regulates soil temperature swings and suppresses any winter weeds. In spring, I turn whatever leaves are still there into the soil with a pitchfork. The worms love this (it is what they eat) and it attracts more of them to my beds. More worms equals more earthworm castings which is the best organic soil conditioner there is!
2. I use leaves to add organic matter directly to the lawn. Use a mulching mower and mow them over the lawn in place-Chopped leaves break down very quickly. The lawn can always use more organic matter. Organic matter means better water retention and more soil microbes. Soil microbes break down thatch naturally and fertilize the soil. This makes a happier, greener lawn for you.
3. For shade gardens, do not rake the leaves at all. It is that simple. If you have been raking your leaves out of a shade garden or from under a tree, just leave them this year and watch the magic happen. See how much happier your trees and shade gardens will be. Toads will appreciate this too. They burrow into the leaf layer for the winter. In spring and summer, they eat all the slugs and bugs that bother your shade plantings.
4. I use leaves to layer into my compost bins with all the kitchen scraps. Leaves mixed with kitchen scraps and other green plant material, you can make and have beautiful compost available all season.
5. I use leaves to create new garden beds in fall. I outline the new garden bed, lay cardboard down on top of the lawn and add a very thick layer of leaves on top of the cardboard. In spring, the grass is no longer alive and I can edge and plant a new garden here without having to dig out the grass. Leaves make this job much easier! After planting a new bed using this method, if you do not like the look of the leaves as a mulch, simply spread a natural finely chopped mulch on top of the leaves. They will enrich this garden for seasons to come.
Right now is the ideal time to stockpile your leaves. Pick a spot in your yard and dump them all there-as many as you can get. In no time, they break down and the pile will be MUCH smaller and you’ll actually wish you had more! Add them to your gardens and enrich the soil. The wise arborist I used many years ago was right and I will always appreciate his advice. Leaves are nature’s mulch-Leave them be!