I remember as a child my reward for raking the yard was a waste deep pile of gathered leaves to jump onto and roll around in. Nothing sounds quite like the crunch of fall leaves! As an adult, my leaf raking skills are still rewarded by way of enriched soil, free mulch and free fertilizer.
Discarded tree leaves contain an abundance of nutrients for your lawn and garden. Carbon, the major mineral found in leaf litter is basically free plant food! Minor minerals such as calcium and magnesium also play a vital role in plant health.
The first steps to unlocking the wealth of your potential leaf harvest are collection and storage.
Collecting and storage go hand in hand. Ideally you will want to store some dry leaves for spring use in your compost pile or as mulch.
Leaves kept dry in heavy-duty plastic lawn bags, garbage cans with lids or similar containers can be stored two to three years without much breakdown.
If space allows, an inexpensive leaf pen can be made out of chicken wire or snow fencing. Encircle an area large enough to hold your leaf supply and anchor firmly with plant stakes.
Another option is wet storage to make leaf mold. Shredded wet leaves stored in closed plastic bags with air holes will generate decay. This decomposed material is basically compost made from leaves only, the way nature feeds a forest floor. Leaf mold can take eighteen months to two years to properly break down into black gold. But this low nitrogen product has high water retention properties and makes a good soil amendment.
There are several ways to incorporate leaves back into your landscape.
Lawns can benefit from a light layer of leaves spread directly over top by your mulching mower. If you don’t own a mulching mower, rake your leaves evenly across your yard and mow as usual.
Combined with grass-cycling (mulching grass clippings back onto your lawn), your grass will receive an ample supply of nitrogen during the growing season and carbon in the off season.
While you’re shredding leaves, save some to use elsewhere in your landscape.
Shredded leaves can be mixed into raised beds and vegetable garden to breakdown over winter. Work the leaves into the top four to six inches of topsoil. This area is called the “root zone”. Added nutrients below this area are generally wasted.
Mix some shredded leaves with wood mulch to use along paths or around ornamental plants as you would with regular mulch.
A layer of whole leaves spread over a bulb garden or annual garden can drastically cut down weed seeds entering your garden and getting established. Remember to remove the mat of wet leaves before planting or in time for spring bulb leaves to emerge.
So don’t dread fall leaves, shred fall leaves! Get out and enjoy the rest of autumn. Just between us, I still enjoy playing in leaf piles!