Using Autumn Leaves in the Garden

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Beautiful & Beneficial

Bold, mellow, bright or subdued, the rich colors that fall leaves add to the landscape are one of the many reasons autumn is a favorite time of year for many people.

For gardeners, they can be a double blessing: beautiful on the bough and eminently useful once they hit the ground.

Fallen leaves can be

  • a good mulch when allowed to decompose for about a year; a
  • wonderful soil amendment when turned into leaf mold; an
  • excellent source of "brown matter" for compost piles; and a
  • fine insulator for herbaceous perennials and other tender plants.



MAKING LEAF MULCH & LEAF MOLD

When decomposed, autumn leaves can be used both as mulch & fertilizer.
When decomposed, autumn leaves can be used both as mulch & fertilizer. | Source

Leaf Mulch & Leaf Mold

Not only are leaves excellent "brown matter" to add to the compost pile, but they can also be decomposed all by themselves to create leaf mulch or leaf mold.

Because autumn leaves contain little nitrogen, they compose slowly. In fact, it can take up to one year to make leaf mulch and two years to make leaf mold. Shredding the leaves will speed up the decomposition process.

Wire Compost Bins

A wire compost bin will keep leaves from blowing across the lawn while allowing air flow within the pile. Since you'll only stir the pile once during the two-year process of making leaf mold, maintaining air flow is super important.

Because leaves contain little nitrogen, they compose slowly on their own, and it can take up to one year to make leaf mulch and two years to make leaf mold. Shredding the leaves will speed up the decomposition process.

How to Make Leaf Mulch

Gather fall leaves, pile them with wire netting and stamp down the pile. Leave them alone for a full year. Then turn the pile, mixing it as thoroughly as you can. The result? Leaf mulch, just in time to keep plants warm over winter—and provide food for earthworms.

How to Make Leaf Mold

To make leaf mold, allow the leaves to sit another year after turning them. By the next fall, the pile should be half its original size and ready to use as a soil amendment.

ADDING FALLEN LEAVES TO COMPOST PILES

Low in nitrogen, autumn leaves break down slowly when composted by themselves.
Low in nitrogen, autumn leaves break down slowly when composted by themselves. | Source

Autumn Leaves in Compost

To get your compost pile working well, you need an even mix of low-nitrogen "brown matter," such as straw, aged sawdust, and pine needles, and high-nitrogen "green matter," such as grass clippings and kitchen parings.

Autumn Leaves, Mice & Ticks

To create a tick-free zone in your yard, remove fallen leaves from around your house. Raking autumn leaves from your home's foundation doesn't just make your home look better. It also removes nesting material that attracts mice, which in turn attract ticks.

For more tips on creating a tick-free zone in your landscape, visit the Center for Disease Control.


In autumn, fallen leaves, which are low in nitrogen, are a readily available source of brown matter for the compost pile.

Don't have enough green matter to balance out all that brown matter in your fall compost pile? In addition to the green matter that you do have, add a compost activator into the mix along with a bit of water.

High in nitrogen and protein, compost activators like alfalfa meal, blood meal, farmyard manure and cottonseed meal will spur the decomposition process along.

USING FALL LEAVES TO PROTECT PLANTS

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Leaves as Insulation

If voles and wood borers are not a problem where you live, you can also use leaves (as well as wood mulch) to overwinter plants.

Herbaceous Perennials

Wood mulch and leaves work particularly well for herbaceous perennials.

Common Herbaceous Perennials

Spring Bloomers
Summer Bloomers
Fall Bloomers
bleeding heart
astilbe
aster
carnation
blackeyed Susan
chrysanthemums
iris
daylily
gayfeather
peony
shasta daisy
coreopsis
poppy
yarrow
lilyturf

Once the plants die down due to the frosts of fall, apply a good covering of mulch and leaves to their crowns in order to protect them from the killing freezes and thaws of winter.

Roses

Mulch and leaves may also be used for overwintering roses.

If winters are particularly harsh where you live, try fashioning a "collar" out of black and white newspaper. First, fold a double-spread of newsprint into a long, thick strip anywhere from 2 to 3 inches tall. Position the strip around the base of your rose bush, stapling it to form a collar. Then fill the collar with leaves and mulch.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening as a child alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.



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Comments 22 comments

The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi Ruby! You're welcome. And thank you for commenting on & sharing the hub. All the best, Jill


Ruby H Rose profile image

Ruby H Rose 4 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

Thanks so much for the tip about raking leaves away from the house. I need to get that done. Wonderful hub by the way, voted up and shared.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi donnah75! Leaf mold is awesome, and (obviously) it's easy to make. It just takes leaves, time & patience. Lots of patience. Hope you give it a try. Thanks for commenting & sharing! Take care, Jill


donnah75 profile image

donnah75 4 years ago from Upstate New York

I had heard about leaf mold, but I never actually knew what it was or the right way to create it. This was very informative. Voted up and sharing.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

WannB Writer --That's how one of our raised beds is. Don't the leaves just make the soil incredibly rich and loamy? Nice to hear from you! --Jill


WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

I haven't had time to plan how to use my leaves, but they happen to fall on a perennial flower bed. They have been a useful mulch right where they fell, with no help from me. I do rake up and coral the leaves that don't fall on that bed and use them through the year as bedding for my worms.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi Old Roses. Will have to try your bulb-saving strategy. Since the dog often helps me plant, our bulbs sometimes end up in places I did not intend, but ... he has such a good time and he's so cute, we blindly blame the squirrels. Take care, Jill


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 4 years ago from Franklin Park, NJ

Bravo! This is an excellent hub. I love hubs that provide natural solutions. I use autumn leaves mulch and in my composter. I always keep a pile of leaves handy when I am planting my fall bulbs. I spread them over my flower beds when I finish planting to mask the odor of fresh soil. This prevents squirrels from finding and digging up my bolbs.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Glad you stopped by, Faith Reaper. Only a few leaves are turning here now--on red twig dogwood, beech. Can't wait for the rest! Take care, Jill


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Very insightful hub! The leaves have not changed here yet, but should start soon. Enjoyed the read. Voted Up In His Love, Faith Reaper


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi RTalloni. What a great way to put it! Autumn leaves really are gifts-- and beautiful ones at that. Nice to hear from you! Jill


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

@ Peggy W -- I used the collar two years ago and really liked it. It was neat, keeping the mulch and leaves in place, despite windy weather. Thanks for your comments! Jill


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Sounds like a plan, Leah! Our leaves haven't started to turn yet, but I'm hoping they do soon. I'm looking forward to taking more photos--and, of course, composting. (:


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks, carol7777. It would really be a shame to throw leaves away. They are just too good to use for enriching the soil. Take care, Jill


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York

What a great idea, Dirt Farmer! I am definitely using our leaves for mulch this year. We have a ton of them!


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

Perfect timing for great information on using the leaves we will soon be inundated with. It's a beautiful season and your hub will help us remember to take the most advantage of the season's gifts!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Your fall leaf photos were so pretty and your ideas of how best to use them in the compost pile or as mulch were good. I thought it was particularly interesting to make a newspaper collar and then use the leaves inside of that to protect the crowns and roots of plants over the winter months in cold climates. Up votes and will share.


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

What a natural way to use leaves instead of throwing them out. They are so beautiful..Great ideas. Vote UP.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hey Glimmer Twin Fan! Don't you love it? Autumn is my favorite time of year. (: Glad you stopped by! --Jill


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi Pavlo. Awesome! It really is a thrifty, effective and soil-nourishing way to use leaves in the garden. Thanks for the feedback! Appreciate it. --Jill


Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

Just a beautiful hub and really useful. Leaves are just now looking like they are going to change and fall in my area. Voted up!


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

we always use leaves to cover roots of plants vulnerable to frost. Good hub, good ideas!

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