Woman with rake

What to do with those leaves

Fall has finally arrived, and your trees are responding by dropping leaves all over your yard. Raking leaves into huge piles is synonymous with all things fall, but what to do with the leaves — besides jumping in them? We've got a few ideas for giving those leaves a second lease on life.

Nothing signals fall quite like the mounds of colorful leaves that blanket the ground. We all enjoy the shade of a tall, mature tree in the summer — but we pay the price by raking huge piles of leaves in the fall. Why not let these gorgeous leaves bring new life to your garden and yard?

Shred them up

If you don't own a leaf shredder, a simple solution is to run over the leaves with the lawn mower. This may take a few times, but you not only reduce the volume of leaves — you are also allowing for a more efficient decomposition of the leaves. Shredded leaves allow more water to pass through to the soil below, rather than creating those thick mats of leaves we see in the forest. Once the leaves are shredded, there are several uses for them around your yard.

Compost

You may already have a compost pile or bin, and leaves are a carbon-rich addition to help balance your pile. If you don't already have one started, it can be relatively simple to start. The leaves will be considered your "brown" addition to your compost, and they need to be balanced out with "greens," such as kitchen food scraps or grass clippings from your yard. Once your compost really gets cooking, the payoff is a rich, nutrient-laden soil you can use for planting flower beds in the spring.

New to composting? Check out our composting basics >>

Mulch

Gardeners use mulch in a variety of ways, but did you know leaves make an excellent source? When you pile leaves — shredded or not — an amazing process begins. A fungus takes care of the decomposition over a period of time, turning the leaves into "leaf mold," which is super-high in nutrients and great for water retention. You can use the leaf mold in place of peat moss or as a moisture-retention barrier around the base of plants.

Protective barrier

As leaves fall in the forest, they begin the process of decomposition and adding rich nutrients to the soil. But the leaves also provide a protective barrier for young plants, especially during late fall and into winter. Use your raked leaves to cover young or particularly fragile plants and provide an inches-thick blanket of insulation during cold months. You can also use a blanket of leaves to insulate plants in your vegetable garden that keep producing through the winter, such as carrots or leeks.

Enjoy a winter vegetable garden >>

Soil amendment

You can also add shredded or torn leaves directly into the soil to boost nutrients and attract microbes and earthworms. It helps to add a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to help the leaves decompose and to maintain the proper balance of nitrogen in the soil for healthy plants. Be sure to shred or tear the leaves when using them this way, to avoid a solid "mat" of leaves that can prevent water from getting through to the soil.

Upcycle the leaves from your yard into your garden, lawn and planting beds and see how easy it is to be green in the garden.

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