What to Do with ALL These Leaves

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Raking leaves this weekend? Look up every leaf as gardener’s gold! Here are awesome ways to make the most of this abundant annual windfall—from protecting plants to making leaf mold and mulching. Nature builds soil this way—and so should you.

We don’t call it “fall” for nothing. The colorful foliage that delights the senses precedes the literal fall, when most of the deciduous trees send their leaves drifting to the ground. Fallen leaves rustle underfoot. They smell good. The wind sometimes whips them into a frenzy of dancing shapes.

Yes, LEAVES are this season’s most abundant crop. What amazing organic matter (and free, too). The trees have mined minerals from deep in the subsoil and brought them to the surface. Leaves are a rich source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and more.

The leaves of one large tree can be worth as much as $50 worth of plant food and humus. Pound for pound, leaves contain twice the mineral content of manure. The huge amount of organic matter they offer can be used to improve soil structure.

Here’s how to use those fall leaves to feed your soil instead of stuffing nature’s leaves into plastic garbage bags to be dumped by the millions into landfills.

1. Improve your soil

Mix shredded leaves right into your garden. Next spring, your soil will be teeming with earthworms and other beneficial organisms. Note: If you add shredded leaves right to the soil, add some slow-release nitrogen fertilizers to help the leaves decompose and to ensure that soil microbes don’t use all the available nitrogen.

Join Ben and his furry friend who shows us all the ways to use fallen leaves in the yard and garden, putting all their goodness to use around the garden, from protecting plants to making leaf mold and mulching. Hang around to the end for a great way to supercharge all the leaves you do rake up!

2. Create a compost pile

Make compost for a valuable soil amendment. If you are not already composting, now is a good time to start. Pile autumn leaves in the corner of your yard. Ideally, keep leaves from blowing away with chicken wire or some type of structure. To speed up composition, shred those leaves with a mulching lawnmower (or use a chipper or leaf shredder).

Layer these carbon-rich “brown” leaves with high-nitrogen “green” material such as grass clippings, dead plant matter, and kitchen scraps. The “green” feeds the bacteria that will be doing all the work of breaking down the leaves. Layer three or four inches of old leaves with an inch of fresh grass clippings or other green, leafy yard waste.

Then let the compost sit all winter, turning the pile occasionally to aerate it. If the compost pile starts to appear dry, spray it down with a garden hose and turn with a pitch fork. By the time spring rolls around, you should have some nice compost to mix into your garden soil.

3. Make leaf mold

Does composting sound like too much work? Then make leaf mold, much beloved by English gardeners. Simply rake the leaves into a big pile. If you shred them, they will decompose faster, but you can still make leaf mold without shredding. Keep the leaves moist and let the fungi take over. After one to three years, the leaves will have disintegrated into a dark, sweet-smelling, soil conditioner that is high in calcium and magnesium and retains water. It’s exceptional as an amendment for veggie and flower gardens and a great addition for potting soils. See our video on how to make leaf mold.

4. Make mulch

Leaves make an excellent protective mulch for vegetable crops, blueberries (and other berries), and ornamental shrubs. They not only suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture, but because they contain no weed seeds themselves, they won’t encourage the spread of new weeds.

We cover the beds in our vegetable garden with a layer of chopped leaves to keep the soil from washing away over the winter. Be sure to chop or shred leaves before using them as mulch. Whole leaves can form a mat that water can’t penetrate.

Leaves make a good insulating cover for overwintering tender perennials, too. The best time to mulch perennials is after the ground has frozen, so put aside shredded leaves in bags to use later in the fall.

Leaf cover allows fall-planted garlic to root without sprouting, and prevents shallow-rooted strawberries from heaving during winter’s freeze-thaw cycles.

5. Mow into the lawn

Researchers at Michigan State University have shown that lawns actually benefit from thin layers of leaves. Leaf litter improves the soil, lessening the need for fertilizer in the spring. They recommend a mulching lawnmower with a blade 3 inches high and mowing once a week while the leaves are falling. This will break down the leaves into smaller pieces over the winter, providing your soil with nutrients. Older mowers can be converted to mulchers by installing a mulching blade.

So, don’t be a perfectionist! Leave leaf litter to feed worms, fungi, and soil bacteria. Just don’t leave thick layers of matted leaves on your lawn, as this blocks oxygen to the soil and invites disease.

6. Protect and store root vegetables

Leaves make a good insulating layer for cold-hardy vegetables and root crops stored in the ground—such as carrots, kale, leeks and beets. Cover them and you’ll be able to harvest all winter.

If you have a cool, humid spot, you can also store carrots, beets, and other root vegetables between layers of crisp, freshly fallen leaves. Sprinkle each layer of leaves with water (don’t let them get soggy). If you don’t grow your own vegetables, visit a farmers’ market and try to find a vendor who will sell you half a bushel or more of your favorite root crops.

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