Use Fallen Leaves to Improve Your Lawn & Garden

Not long after the beautiful fall leaves are gracing the trees in our area (like these native trees with great color), they become a carpet covering the lawns and streets. If your lawn becomes covered with fallen leaves every year, you probably already have a method for getting rid of the leaves – raking them into piles to be collected (and then raking them again when they blow away), or perhaps using a leaf blower and then bagging them.

Did you know, though, that trees still gather nutrients from leaves after they fall to the ground? In fact, it’s one way to reduce the amount of fertilizer required to keep trees in urban areas healthy.

bagged leaves for landfill

Bagging leaves for the landfill can do more harm than good

Plus, it’s not only a pain to rake and bag leaves and for a city to pay to transport them to a landfill, but organic matter such as leaves can generate harmful gasses like methane in landfills. According to the EPA, “Methane is a colorless, explosive gas that is released as bacteria decompose organic materials in landfills. If methane is not controlled at a landfill, it can seep underground and into nearby buildings, where it has the potential to explode.”

Luckily, that same force can be used for good.

We’ll show you two ways you can take advantage of this free natural resource that may be “littering” your ground each fall.

  1. One is by mulching the leaves to act as a natural weed deterrent for your lawn or garden. It also provides nutrients to the ground that your trees and plants will eventually absorb.
  2. The second way is to create leaf compost, a valuable and almost free resource that you might be throwing away!

Create Leaf Mulch From Your Fallen Leaves

How do you create leaf mulch?

Once your leaves have fallen, wait for them to fully dry out. You’ll know that they are dried when they reach that crunchy state that is so satisfying when you walk over them.

tree and fall leaves

Fallen leaves contain nutrients for lawns, trees, and gardens

Then, chop up the leaves into little pieces.

The simplest method is to run over the leaves with a mulching lawnmower – just make sure that the leaves aren’t piled up too high or you might jam the mower. And be sure to remove any twigs, sticks, or stones that might damage your equipment.

You can also chop up leaves with a string trimmer (it’s easiest to put the leaves in a large trash can and then shred them with the string trimmer) or even a leaf shredder.

What are the benefits of leaf mulch on a lawn?

As leaves break down, they return nutrients, minerals, microbes, and other beneficial substances to the soil. Over time, the addition of leaf mulch means you’ll need to use less fertilizer, less water, and fewer chemicals to keep your lawn lush, green and healthy.

For example, a study at Minnesota State University led to the Landscape Services employees of that university using leaf mulch to prevent dandelions growing on the lawn. The first year they applied leaf mulch, they noticed 80% fewer dandelions, and the second year still had 50% fewer.

Won’t leaving the leaves on my lawn kill the grass?

Raking leaves became popular because people were taught that leaves can suffocate a lawn – or because some neighborhoods frown on the “messy” look of fallen leaves. The reality is that leaves won’t suffocate a lawn, but there are three things to watch out for.

  1. If the tree leaves have been treated with an herbicide or pesticide, there is a chance that the chemicals can harm the grass.
  2. If there are large piles of un-mulched leaves that become covered with heavy snow, there is a chance that snow mold will develop on your lawn (it’s a gray or pink fungus that can damage your grass).
  3. If you’re using a mulching mower, don’t wait until all leaves have fallen and created a thick carpet before you run them over. Not only can it clog your mower, but it also won’t result in the finely chopped leaves you need. A deep layer of partially chopped leaves can damage your lawn.

However, if the leaves are untreated by chemicals and are properly mulched and spread over the lawn (or your garden), oxygen will still be able to reach your lawn and it will remain healthy.

Can I use leaf mulch in my garden?

Yes! If you plan on using it for your garden beds, pile all of the leaves together (it’s better if they’re chopped up but not necessary). You can let them sit a few weeks and then spread them on your garden, or you can allow them to sit all winter and use the leaves as garden mulch in the spring.

Create Leaf Compost From your Fallen Leaves

leaf mulch

Leaf compost resembles soil when it has fully composted

Leaf composting takes a bit more work, as you have to turn and fertilize the pile, but the end result is often referred to as “leaf gold” because of the benefits it provides.

How do I make leaf compost?

Leaf compost (also called leaf mold) is different from garden compost in that it’s made only from leaves, nothing else. Shredding or mulching the leaves (see above) helps aid the decomposition process.

Pile the leaves in a composter, bin, or in a large garbage bag with holes for earthworms (see more information on the garbage bag method of composting here).

Every month, use a garden hose to add moisture to the leaves, turn it with a pitchfork (or rotate the composting bin), and, if possible, sprinkle in some nitrogen fertilizer. The compost will heat up and the leaves will break down.

leaf composting

Ensure your composting area is away from buildings

The pile will get smaller as the leaves decompose, and the final product will be dark, crumbly and will resemble soil. If it smells bad, it’s not quite ready to use. The leaf compost will usually take about four to eight months to completely break down. Or you can take the ‘lazy’ way – just leave the pile alone until next fall; most leaves will have broken down by then even without turning or wetting the pile.

Note: Remember how we mentioned the possibility of methane explosions at a landfill? That same heat generating force is how compost is made. For safety reasons, don’t compost in a garage or near a building like a shed.

Give it a try!

This fall, try something different with the leaves that fall in your yard. Experiment with leaf mulch or leaf compost and see what happens. You’ll save your money (and your back), and you’ll be doing the environment a favor while you’re at it.

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