How to use fall leaves to improve your lawn and garden

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The weather has been changing quickly, and the rainy weekend certainly felt a little more like fall than summer. Even so, I was surprised to find entire sections of the bike trail blanketed with leaves on Saturday.

Living in the woods I’m still surrounded by a mostly green dome. However, I know this will change in the coming weeks and I can’t let this opportunity go to waste.

Fall leaves are an underutilized natural resource, one of the most readily-available forms of organic matter and the cheapest fertilizer on the market.

Returning nutrients to the soil

During the spring and summer, trees pull nutrients and minerals up from the soil and convert them into new leaves and branches. Nutrients and minerals are returned to the soil when the leaves fall off the trees and decompose on the ground. Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice as many nutrients as manure.

Changing your fall cleanup routine can improve the soil in your backyard before spring. When leaves are left on the ground they are transformed into a rich humus by worms, bacteria and other microorganisms. A healthy earthworm population can drag a 1-inch layer of organic matter into their underground burrows in a few months, both aerating and fertilizing your soil, unseen.

The addition of this organic matter coats finer particles providing more air space in clay soils, and binds sandy soils allowing for better water retention.

Organic matter also increases microbial activity including beneficial bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that aid in plant growth.

Mulching

Mulching, shredding or chopping fall leaves helps them break down faster and prevents them from matting together and suffocating the soil or vegetation.

You can mulch leaves that have fallen into your yard by simply running the lawn mower over them. This process can chop leaves to one-tenth their original size. 

The best time to mulch fallen leaves is when they are dry and less than one inch deep.

Mulching leaves

  1. Set your mower deck to 3-inches high.
  2. Remove bagging attachments and block off the chute on a rear-discharge machine.
  3. Walk slowly giving your mower blades time to chop the leaves.
  4. If your mower has a side discharge chute, begin on the outside perimeter of your lawn and blow leaves into the center so you can pass over them more than once.

When you’re finished you may have some brown mulched leaf patches, however, they should settle into the soil and you should see grass growing through them within a few days. If the grass isn’t emerging after a few days, run the mower over them again.

Using leaves as mulch

Mulching leaves into your lawn returns nutrients to the soil and reduces weed germination. Using leaves as mulch in your flower and vegetable gardens can impact the ecosystems within them, similarly.

Leaves can be applied as mulch either whole or chopped in flower beds, vegetable gardens and around trees and shrubs. This layer of natural mulch can protect microorganisms in the soil, provide a place for pollinators to overwinter, smother weeds, protect plants growing under the soil and provide a source of organic matter in the spring.

Trees and shrubs. Many insects and pollinators rely on fallen leaves to feed in the fall and complete their life cycle by overwintering in the leaf litter until spring. Removing this habitat in the fall reduces the number of emerging moths, butterflies, fireflies, bees and more. Disrupting these life cycles causes food chain disruptions to birds and other wildlife in the spring and can impact pollinator numbers. Leaving a 2-4 inch layer of whole leaf mulch under trees and shrubs can help maintain these vital habitats without giving up your entire lawn. Be careful to keep the mulch layer away from the trunk and root crown.

Flower beds. A 2-3 inch layer of chopped or shredded leaves applied to your flower beds will help maintain a uniform soil temperature throughout the winter, which will protect tender root systems and microorganisms and prevent frost upheaval from damaging bulbs, tuberous flowers and less hardy perennials. The mulch layer will also recycle nutrients and feed your plants, conserve soil moisture during dry spells and prevent the emergence of weeds. Mulch should be applied after the first hard freeze.

Vegetable garden. A 2-inch layer of whole or chopped leaves applied to the top of your vegetable garden can provide an overwintering area for pollinators, smother winter weeds and add organic matter to the soil when it is tilled in in the spring.

Composting leaves

Composting leaves is pretty simple and inexpensive. A recommended ratio is 25-30 parts brown material, such as dried leaves, to one part green material, such as grass clippings. When you’re mulching leaves with your mower you’re basically creating compost for your lawn.

However, you can also compost leaves in the fall to spread on your garden or flower beds in the spring.

  1. The first layer in your composter pile should be 6 inches of leaves.
  2. The second layer should be about 2 inches of grass clippings or other green material such as fruit and vegetable waste, manure, coffee grounds and tea bags.
  3. The final layer is two inches of native soil. It contains decomposers and prevents odors from developing.
  4. Turn your pile in two times during the first month. 
  5. After that, only turn it in one or two more times over the next three to four months and it should be ready to use.

Realistically, if you had enough leaves and green material you could cover your vegetable garden and till the entire compost pile into it in the spring.

If you have way more brown material than you need for your compost pile this fall, you can store them in garbage bags with small holes that allow leaves to break down naturally. Wetting the bags of leaves or leaving the holes in direct contact with the ground will speed up decomposition, creating leaf mold. You can then add the leaf mold to your compost pile in the spring and summer when brown materials are not as readily available.

Improve water quality

Cleaning up leaves and repurposing them on your property keeps them out of storm drains and local waterways, which improves water quality. When leaves make it into local water sources they release nutrients as they break down and can encourage algae growth.

Keep yard waste on-site

Keeping your yard waste in your yard has endless conservation benefits. Not only does repurposing it feed back into the vibrant ecosystem that exists there, it can also prevent the accidental transportation of invasive plant and animal species and it cuts down on the resources used to transport and dispose of it.

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