Fall Leaves Are A Valuable Free Resource For The Home Gardener!

 

Mastering the subject of fall leaves (and what to do/not do with them) can provide great long-lasting value to the home gardener.

I think a lot of gardeners are missing a golden opportunity to enrich their garden beds and lawns and save money by not using this God-given resource that actually does grow on trees (and falls from the sky).

What Not To Do With Fall Leaves

The “not do” part is easy – don’t waste autumn leaves by raking and bagging them and setting them at the curb to be picked up (and take up space in landfills).  What a waste of time, energy and resources!

These autumn leaves are essentially 100% organic fertilizer once they break down (just like grass and weed clippings – so don’t bag and trash those either), to be used wherever you choose.

They contain nutrients and minerals (otherwise practically unobtainable by you) mined by tree roots deep in the soil and handed to you at the surface to take advantage of.

Also, don’t let fall leaves just pile up and lay on your lawn – blocking the sun and air from your grass and creating potential problems with mold and disease.

Finally, don’t let the fall leaves blow away!  Get to them as quick as you can as they fall before you lose them to brisk autumn winds.

What TO DO With Fall Leaves

Now to the “do” part of fall leaves, which takes a little work but provides great long-lasting rewards.

There are three great primary uses of autumn leaves.

  1. autumn leaves can be simply mowed into your lawn
  2. shredded and used as a mulch for your flower beds and garden areas
  3. shredded and used in a home composting operation.

Mow, Mow, Mow Your Leaves

By simply mowing your leaves, you pulverize and shred them into little bits that are more quickly and easily broken down by Mother Nature.

As the leaves break down, they basically become free organic fertilizer for your lawn!

The bits of leaves also act as a protective, water-retentive mulch for your lawn over the harsh winter.

Mulch To Do About Something

If you want to use shredded leaves somewhere other than your lawn, simply put a bag on your mower and then transfer the shredded leaves to your flower beds or garden areas.

Keep in mind that soils that are bare and exposed to the sun and air slowly lose nutrients via this exposure.  By covering bare soils with an organic mulch you can turn this nutrient loss into nutrient gain as earthworms and soil bacteria and microorganisms break this organic matter down.

There are various tools one can use to collect and shred autumn leaves – one of the most popular is a simple leaf blower that is set on reverse and fed into a shoulder-carried bag.  I have tried this but prefer a mulching/bagging lawnmower.

Home Is Where The Compost Is

For someone who has a home composting operation, one of the great things about the shredding and collecting of fall leaves with a mulching mower is that in many areas you can collect both the brown carbon component (leaves) and the green nitrogen component (cool-season grass and weed clippings) that you need at the same time! (see picture above of greens and browns together on a cool-season lawn)

In my area (Zone 7), cool season grasses such as tall fescue and many weeds are still green and slowly growing during the time that the leaves are falling.  For those new to composting, you need roughly 2 parts brown materials to every 1 part green to create a proper “hot” compost pile that will heat up and break down quickly to finished compost (within a few weeks during the warm growing season).

During the spring and summer, it is hard to find the carbon components to complement the abundant grass clippings and other greens (unless you have bagged and saved some fall leaves).  During the winter, it is hard to find the nitrogen components to complement the brown leaves.  Only the fall season provides both at once.

As an aside, a lot of people think that their kitchen scraps are great additions to a compost pile.  In fact, these scraps are best used in a worm bin (where they will be converted into worm castings – which are even greater soil amendments than yard-waste compost).  The one exception to your kitchen scraps is coffee grounds, which are a great nitrogen-rich “green” addition to compost piles.

You can also create leaf mold compost by simply shredding and piling fall leaves only (adding no greens at all), but this will take longer.  If all you do is simply shred and pile fall leaves into an enclosure of some kind (3 to 4 feet in size in each dimension), by spring you should have a decent amount of compost at the bottom of this pile (even in cold regions of the country and without turning the pile).

Other Ways To Use Fall Leaves

There are a few secondary uses of autumn leaves that I would like to mention.

I know some gardeners like to till leaves directly into their gardens in the fall (which eliminates the possibility that they will blow away), to break down in the soil over the winter .  I don’t see many experts recommend this, and have never tried it myself.

Fall leaves can also be shredded and bagged to be saved for your composting needs during the warm seasons.  As I mentioned earlier, “browns” are hard to come by just when “greens” become abundant, and you definitely don’t want to try to build a compost pile out of grass clippings only and without the browns (that creates a slimy, smelly mess of a pile that won’t turn into proper compost).

A final possible use of fall leaves (that I am trying this year for the first time) is to build a raised bed with them via the technique of lasagna gardening.

In short, this means building up a mixture of organic compostable material (such as shredded fall leaves and grass/weed clippings) to a certain height within a container (or raised bed) of some kind, and then topping it off with 6 to 12 inches of a soil/compost mix to plant into.

It might be a good idea to separate the leaves/clippings mix at the bottom from the soil mix at the top with several pages of newspaper or a single layer of cardboard, to keep your soil mix from slowly filtering down.  The underlying materials will slowly break down and compress over time and you simply keep adding soil mix to the top to keep your desired height.

The great advantage of this technique is that it saves you a lot of money in the process of filling your raised beds, especially if you like to make your raised beds pretty tall.  You don’t have to buy dozens of expensive bags of topsoil and compost to fill your beds with from the ground up – you just need enough to top them off.

Tall raised beds (sitting-height all the way up to waist-high) make gardening so much easier and more enjoyable by bringing the level of the soil closer to your hands.

Conclusion

In closing, I’m sure a lot of my neighbors must wonder what the heck I’m doing when they see me out with my mulching/bagging mower day after day when they have long since put their mowers up for the winter.  I gather autumn leaves and clippings from my yard, from the curbs of the city street I live on (keeping them from clogging our storm drains), from the city park next to my property, and from their yards as well if they let me.

At a time when most other lawn and garden chores have wound down, I think it is the perfect time to take advantage of the bounty offered up by autumn leaves!

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