Using Autumn Leaves in the Garden
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
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
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
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.
Wood mulch and leaves work particularly well for herbaceous perennials.
Common Herbaceous Perennials
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.
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.
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.