How to Use Leaves in Your Garden and Yard8
Leaf Pick-Up or Pack-Up?
I’m pretty sure we’re the only family on the block whose lawn is still covered in leaves. Why? Because leaf pick-up happened at least a week ago. In our suburban neighborhood, leaf pick-up is where everyone rakes or blows their leaves into the street and on a specific day the city comes along and sweeps them up. And what does the city do with them? They contract with a local waste management company which composts them and then sells the compost to individuals and organizations.
But not here! We don’t need someone else to compost our leaves for us and sell them back!* Not only that, but we can use leaves for so many other things on our micro-farm. And that means there are many things you can use your leaves for as well.
Mulch in the garden is a great asset. A layer of mulch helps to retain moisture (especially in raised beds which dry out more quickly), maintain soil temperature, and protect against the deposit/growth of weed seeds. Many substances can be used as mulch: Black plastic, landscape fabric, stone, gravel, wood or bark chips, compost, composted manure, grass clippings, newspaper, straw and of course leaves. When the mulch is organic, it brings a bonus benefit of adding nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.
Yes, since organic mulch breaks down you will have to eventually replace it. But the extra work is worth it because of the improvement to your garden soil. To reap all of the aforementioned benefits of leaves-as-mulch, its best to shred them. There are two reasons. The first reason is that un-shredded leaves tend to form a matted layer that may repel moisture. Shredding leaves, however, allows water through makes it easier for them to break down and add nutrients to the soil over time. With shredded leaves you get a layer that retains (instead of repelling) moisture, maintains soil temperatures, protects against weeds and enhances the soil’s nutrients.
We have a leaf blower/shredder that can do the job for us, however, it fills a tiny little bag (not shown here) and isn’t terribly handy for large jobs. Another easy way to shred leaves is to spread a thin layer out over your yard, mow over them with the lawn mower, and then rake them up.
Need any more reasons to use leaves as mulch? Here’s one: Worms love them! Apparently in the world of organic mulch, fall leaves are worm chocolate. More worms = more nutrients and more aeration of your soil, which is helpful for root development and watering.
Leaf mold is a soil amendment which is essentially leaf-only compost. Leaf mold is a great way to condition soil to better retain moisture and nutrients and as such can be a free replacement for peat moss.
It’s very easy to make:
- Make a pile of leaves (shredded if possible).
- Water the pile.
- Add a thin layer of compost or grass clippings to speed the process.
- Wait. For a year… or two if you can stand it.
We followed these steps (above) last year. This year I was able to use the partially decomposed leaf mold in a few raised beds where I did not have quite enough compost to entirely fill the bed. At the time I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t have enough compost, but in the end these were our best performing beds of the year!
Leaves are an excellent source of high-carbon (“brown”) materials for your compost pile. They are also a good source of trace minerals; trees have deeper roots than many other plants that contribute to your compost pile, so they are able to reach trace minerals that have leached out of the soil into the subsoil. Nearly 80% of these nutrients are stored in the leaves. Think of the tree like a straw, bringing up nutrients you could not reach otherwise, and depositing them on your lawn in the fall. “Thanks, tree, that was thoughtful!”
Stir shredded leaves into your existing compost materials, or layer them with other “green” materials such as grass clippings and vegetable scraps. Then simply let the pile sit over winter and nature will do all the decomposing work for you! (If you feel like lending a helping hand, stirring the pile occasionally will help to ensure there is enough oxygen for microbial action.)
If you can’t shred the leaves, add them anyway! They will still add nutrients but will simply take longer to break down.
As I’ve mentioned, fall leaves are great “brown”, carbon-rich additions to the garden. In summer time, “green” materials are prevalent (i.e. grass clippings) but browns can be hard to come across. You could raid the halfway decomposed leaf mold pile or you could keep a separate bin/bag of leaves set aside with summer composting in mind. That’s a lot more sustainable than looking for newspapers and cardboard to meet the need.
Yard Protection and Fertilizer
My guess is that if you’re reading this article, you’re more interested in enriching your garden than maintaining your lawn. But just in case the other options I’ve presented for making good use of leaves don’t hold much value for you, here’s an idea: Mow them over. No raking or leaf blowing required. Each week (or perhaps twice a week if you get a lot of leaves) simply mow right over the leaves and break them down into itty bitty pieces all over your yard. Those of you with meticulous lawns might cringe at the idea of “littering” all over your beautiful green space, but think about this: The same weed-fighting, nutrient-adding decomposition that happens in a compost pile can happen right on your lawn. By the time the snow melts, the leaves will be a distant memory. Instead, they’ll have fertilized your yard, increased its ability to retain moisture and added a layer of weed-fighting power.
Leaves to Avoid
If you’re an opportunist like me, you might see the benefits of all those (free!) leaves and want to hoard as many of them as you can. But please, put your inner-hoarder in check long enough to keep in mind that some leaves are better left out of your plans.
Natural Herbicide Leaves. Some plants can actually act as a natural herbicide, meaning they kill other plants or prevent their seeds from germinating. One such tree is a eucalyptus tree. Unless you typically great your friends by saying “G’day Mate!” this probably isn’t an issue for you. However here in Michigan, we need to be careful to avoid leaves (and fruit) from the black walnut tree.
Your Neighbors’ Leaves. Even though they’re right next door and your neighbor would probably be happy to let you handle the fall ritual of cleaning up her yard, use caution. You’ll want to be sure that those leaves don’t come from a tree or area where pesticides were used. For those of us who want natural vegetables, pesticides even in trace form are a no-no for human health reasons. Beyond that, some pesticides may hinder the growth of your plants if they are present in a necessary quantity. That being said, if you and your neighbor are sure the leaves are chemical free – go for it!
Using Leaves at Arcadia Farms
Our leaves are mostly maple with some mulberry and cherry leaves mixed in. Our neighbors on both sides have black walnut trees. One is about as far away from our garden as possible on the northern end of the neighbors yard. The other is about 100 feet away, which is a safe distance, but its leaves drop into our backyard and the squirrels are fond of taking the nuts everywhere. We have to be cautious about leaves from this part of the yard.
Last year we created a giant leaf mold pile by literally piling up all the leaves from the yard, wetting it and leaving it alone. I raided the partially-decomposed pile a few times this past summer to supplement raised beds or to add some carbon-rich material to the compost pile. However in October I discovered that the bottom of the pile provided some very rich, almost entirely decomposed leaf mold for adding to the garden. Keep in mind that we did not shred the leaves before adding them – and it still worked.
This year I’m going to do several things with our fall leaves. I’ll be adding a layer to the Fenceline Garden to decompose over the winter and add a fresh layer of nutrients. This garden is going to be fallow all winter long, so it should help to keep spring weed seeds out. Hopefully it will also attract worms to add additional nutrients and much-needed aeration. I plan to rake leaves from the back yard directly into the beds and then, using my electric leaf mulcher, I’ll mulch what’s there and dump the bag right back into the bed.
Any beds in the main garden which are going to be fallow for the winter will also get a layer of leaves. Likewise, beds that have overwintering crops (carrots, onions, parsnips, etc.) will get a blanket of leaves to keep them tucked in nice and warm until they start to take off in the springtime. It would be best to mulch these leaves just like the Fenceline Garden, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m going to have time to do that step.
Helping to maintain soil temperatures is going to be a huge consideration as I attempt to grow vegetables this winter. For that reason, mulch is necessary and I’ll be experimenting to see whether leaves or wood chips provide a better result.
And after all that mulching is done, it’s likely that I’ll create another leaf mold pile – in the same spot as last year – to enjoy next fall or borrow from as I need compost materials next summer.
Whew… after writing all of that I realize I have a lot of work to do! Fortunately it is going to be very warm and sunny here (high of 65*!) this weekend. That’s excellent news, because while I take some pride in being the only girl on the block who’s making good use of her leaves right at home, I better move quickly before I become that girl on the block whose yard is still a giant mess!
* Though I’d rather save on cost and fuel to keep my own leaves for lawn and garden use, I do appreciate that the City of Portage has contracted to provide business to a local company and to compost leaves that would otherwise be burned or taken to a landfill.