Using Fall Leaves for Garden Mulch & Compost

How to Use Autumn Leaves for Mulch and Compost
When we lived in the suburbs, I was always amazed when my neighbors raked their autumn leaves and piled them along the street for the city to pick up and throw into a dump site. Nowadays, I see our rural neighbors blowing leaves into huge piles and lighting them off as a means of disposal. But it's no more difficult to use fall leaves as garden mulch and compost than it is to rake or blow them into piles. And if you look at nature, you'll see that leaves are God's perfect garden mulch - an easy way to richly enhance the soil and make plants healthier and happier.

How to Use Autumn Leaves as Mulch and Compost

* Add leaves to your compost bin. Leaves are one of nature's great plant foods. However, it's important to not dump a huge pile of leaves into the compost bin all at once (because they’ll turn into slimy mush that decomposes very slowly). So add a layer of leaves, then a layer of "green" (nitrogen-rich) things, like vegetable and fruit scraps, then another layer of leaves, and another layer of “greens,” and so on. Running the lawn mower over the leaves to shred them first speeds up their decomposition.

* Use leaves as mulch. Place a few inches of leaves on top of your garden soil, keeping the mulch a couple inches away from plant stems. Again, shredding the leaves first speeds their decomposition and helps keep them from blowing around. However, I don't bother to shred them; we get a lot of winter rain, and that keeps the leaves from blowing away. By spring, even leaves that weren’t shredded have decomposed (or nearly so). This type of leaf mulch not only feeds the soil, but it helps prevent weeds while retaining soil moisture.

* Throw leaves into a bare bed. If you have any bare garden beds, sprinkle autumn leaves over the ground in a thin layer, then lightly dig in. The leaves will rot over winter, feeding the soil and encouraging good-for-your-garden worms and micro-organisms.
* Make leaf mold. Leaf mold is a rich compost that builds up nutrients in the soil. To make your own, fill a black contractor's bag about three-quarters full with fall leaves; close the bag securely and poke small holes all over it. In about a year, you'll have leaf mold to apply to your garden beds.

* Start a lasagna garden. Lasagna gardening (also called "sheet mulching") is a simple way to turn bad soil into spectacular soil - and one main ingredient is leaves. Essentially, you're just layering "greens" (nitrogen-rich materials) and "browns" (carbon-rich materials) on top of the soil; you'll need about twice as many browns as greens, and you should stack everything two or three feet high. Read more about lasagna gardening here.

An important note: Not all leaves are created equal. Some are quicker to decompose than others, and some add more nutrients to the soil than others. Thick leaves (like those of holly) must be well shredded before you can use them in the garden. Most importantly, eucalyptus, walnut, and camphor- and cherry-laurel leaves actually inhibit plant growth, so feel free to rake those into the street for city pick up.

All other leaves, however, are designed to fall to the ground and enrich the soil. So follow nature’s lead this autumn and let leaves do the work God designed them to do.

A version of this article was originally published in December of 2009.

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