Leaf mulch: Tree-powered backyard additive

You've heard of wood chip mulch and straw mulch, but did you know leaf mulch is just as good? In some situations it may even be better to use leaf mulch instead of wood mulch. In addition to suppressing weeds, leaves are a great organic material that is free.

So if you are thinking about organic mulch on your way to winter, consider leaf mulch to help build and maintain healthy soil. Organic mulch comes in many different varieties, but leaf mulch is one of the best resources you have on hand.

Incorporating leaf mulch into your landscape supports plant growth and supplies the soil of your vegetable garden or your flower beds with valuable nutrients. It's also great for your compost bin. Inorganic mulch may be the choice for some, but leaves are more than adequate for most gardens.

What are the subtleties of working with leaf mulch? Read on and we'll explore how you can use this organic material in your home garden.

What is leaf mulch?

Leaf mulch offers many positive benefits for your garden. Source: Rich Renomeron

Put simply, leaf mulch is piles of leaves in various shapes that serve as protection for plants and the surrounding soil. Leaf mulch is organic material that comes from a tree. Since trees tend to shed leaves annually (unless they're evergreen), using leaf litter in the garden is a great way not to pay for mulch at all.

Leaf shape

Leaf mold is what makes leaf mulch so great. Have you ever wondered why the forest is so rich or why the forest floor is so soft? It all has to do with leaf mold. When the leaves fall, they pollute the forest floor and break down into leaf mold. Leaf mold conditions the soil and helps the soil retain water so that understory plants can grow in the spring.

Leaf mold also aerates the soil and allows for easier movement of micronutrients and organisms that improve soil quality. Microorganisms such as fungi, protozoa and nematodes give the plants growing there better protection against diseases and pests. It also acts as a floor warmer and keeps living things alive through the harsh winter times.

Leaf mold is why so many people are promoting leaf mulch as the ultimate in mulch.

Types of leaf mulch

There is a lot to consider when using leaf mulch in your compost pile, flower bed, or vegetable garden. The type of leaf mulch you choose is important. Different leaves disintegrate and perform different functions. Some are better suited for certain situations while others are best used elsewhere. Here are some things to keep in mind before applying mulch to your yard.

Partly composted leaf mulch comes from leaves that have not quite made it to leaf mold. This can be on the forest floor, in vegetable gardens, or your compost. Crushed leaf mulch comes from fallen or green leaves that have been crushed through a human-operated mechanical process. These are whole dry leaves that come from dead branches or fallen leaves.

There is a lot of debate about whether partially decomposed leaf litter is a viable option as mulch. The truth is, even if it needs to be broken down further before using it, how it is applied is key. If you have a very hot compost heap, adding dry leaves can help. But adding green leaves will only make the problem worse. So think about your desired environment and adapt your mulch to that desire.

Grass is also a viable option for mulching leaves. Applied in a thin layer, it provides the nitrogen-rich fertilizer that mulching is known for. It's even great to mix with leaves as a mulch. You can always work leaf mulch into hardwood mulch (if appropriate).

A word of caution

Many gardeners say that black walnut leaves are not suitable for vegetable beds because they contain natural herbicides that can inhibit plant growth. Juglone is one such compound that contains black walnut leaves. The same applies to grass clippings, as they have a bad reputation for stealing nitrogen from the soil. But both are good in thin layers, especially if they have been sufficiently composted. Over time, both provide valuable nutrients and improve the soil structure.

Poisonous plants like poison ivy, sumac, Virginia creeper, and nettle can be used as mulch (just like wood mulch and other leaf mulch). Although all organic mulches break down into useful nutrients, these plants do not lose their skin irritating properties over time. This could make using their shredded leaves in the garden dangerous. They don't want you to dig just for uncomfortable, persistent rashes.

Oak trees are also known for adding acidity to the soil through the tannins in their leaves. Green pine needles (not brown ones) and evergreen conifers offer more. As you distribute it, think about whether or not an area contains acid-loving plants. Nasturtiums, blueberries, daffodils, and hydrangeas are just a few plants that love evergreen mulch leaves. In neutral and alkaline soil-loving plant beds, wood chips can be a better option over evergreen leaves.

Benefits of leaf mulch

Let's talk about all the reasons why you should use leaf mulch in your garden. First, it helps you regulate the floor temperature. This becomes a major problem in the colder and hotter months. Soil temperatures that are regulated protect more sensitive plant roots in the dead of winter.

Leaves also attract other beneficial organisms such as worms that promote the microbiome in the soil. This will make your yields stronger. In conjunction with our first benefit, leaf mulch also helps maintain soil moisture. So in the hot summer, leaf litter helps even sandy soils retain moisture and keep your plants going through extremes.

Leaves suppress weed growth so your plants can thrive without the threat of nutrient loss. Finally, they prevent soil erosion by reducing soil compaction that can occur in heavy soils.

Leaf mold layerThe layer of leaf mold shown here is a rich, black surface coating for the floor. Source: glyn_nelson

Disadvantages of leaf mulch

But leaves are not without their pitfalls. If your combination of clippings and shredded leaves is not properly placed, organic matter will be scattered around your yard by the wind. Improper placement can also cause the opposite problem.

Spreading too thick a layer of leaf litter in an area can create an impenetrable layer that can smother smaller plants in your garden. This isn't good for a lot of plants in need of good drainage. But if the leaves aren't shredded, they can also become matted and prevent moisture from completely getting into the soil, and that's just as bad!

Leaf mulch decomposes faster and must be repeated regularly. That's not too bad considering trees drop their fall leaves annually, but you may find that the mulch doesn't hold up until that point. Finally, they could contain weed seeds that bypass the beneficial weed suppression that dried leaves are known for.

Use of leaf mulch

As we mentioned in the previous section, improper application of dried leaves above the ground is the main cause of the problems associated with leaf mulch in the garden. With that in mind, let's discuss the ways you can use leaf mulch to amplify the benefits of mulching for which it is known.

Garden beds

An annual application of fall foliage is the easiest way to use leaf mulch. These can be dried, fallen leaves that you rake in your garden beds. A leaf blower will also work to bring the leaves together. It could also be collected in plastic garbage bags and then applied in an inch layer over the surface of your garden.

Whether or not you shred leaves is up to you, but be aware that shredding leaves will accelerate the decomposition process. Whole leaves are an equally viable option, but they will take longer to break down. You can use a catcher mulching mower or a simple lawn mower. Fresh leaves and clippings are fine, but they may be better for beds waiting for spring planting.

Compost heap

Another great use for leaf mulch is in your compost heap. These can be shredded, fresh, or even whole dried leaves from hardwood or softwood trees. When you incorporate leaves, grass, and shredded bark into compost along with kitchen scraps and processed small trees, you will find that you have a very viable source of nutrients for the gardening season. Stack dead leaves on top of your compost heap and you will lock in moisture much needed for new plants.

Remember to use the correct sheets here. Green leaves heat the compost. Dried leaves help balance out the heat as they lack most of the nitrogen content of green leaves.


Speaking of moisture, dead fall foliage has proven time and again to be great for the home lawn. The leaves bind the moisture that is required for water-drinking grasses. You bring in earthworms and organisms that also keep the soil your grass is planted healthy. As long as you apply a thin enough layer and don't choke the grass, you will have an even more viable lawn next spring. Use your lawn mower to mulch them in place.

Nature reserve

There is a saying among ecologists: leave the leaves. Why? Because leaves protect insects, snails and worms, which need a warm, humid place in extreme weather conditions. They are also home to moths, butterflies, and beetles. More insects in the area mean more food for birds. That means more food for bigger birds and also for those who eat those big birds. Leaving the leaves in place is one of the best ways to be environmentally friendly in your gardening practice, and you get the added benefit of leaf mulch along with that friendliness.

However, it doesn't hurt to leave the leaves in organized places. If you'd rather have your mulch in the garden beds than on the lawn, that's fine, especially if your HOA calls for a well-groomed appearance. Mulching all garden beds with leaves provides overwintering insects with sufficient living space in your garden.

How to mulch with leaves

Decomposing leavesAs the leaves decompose, they form a moisture-retaining layer on the surface of the soil. Source: Bobby McKay

We've talked about some of the conceptual uses of leaf mulch up to this point. Now let's discuss the step-by-step methods of mulching leaves.

Leave the leaves

As we discussed in the last section, you can just leave the dead leaves where they are and let them do their thing. Nature had a lot of time to find out how best to fertilize the earth in winter. You may notice benefits to your garden in terms of natural pest control and the attraction of beneficial pollinators. But some situations require a little more effort than the live-and-live method.

Collect and move

You can rake leaves from the lawn straight into your yard, as we discussed earlier. Or you can run a lawnmower over the fallen leaves to shred them, then move them to where you want them. The same goes for grass. Collect it as you mow and apply it elsewhere, be it a flower bed or a compost bin.

If you are applying leaf mulch to your yard, make sure the layer is less than 3 inches. Too much has undesirable effects on any plants that are still growing. If you leave the bed fallow for the winter, pile the leaves as high as you want as they will decompose in the soil!

An interesting application for leaf mulch is winter insulation. Many rose gardeners swear by pruning, uprooting, and laying on their side of their rose plants in the fall so that they are completely covered with leaves. The leaves provide enough warmth, protection and moisture so that the roses can withstand difficult times.

Green mulch

For example, suppose you are one of those people who loves to trim the bushes and trees in your yard. You can use green leaves from these efforts to mulch your beds. Keep the layer you apply much thinner in areas where plants grow as these leaves take longer to break down over time. However, feel free to crush them to catalyze the decomposition process.

frequently asked Questions

Lime leaf mulchLeaves from all trees are suitable for mulching, such as these linden leaves. Source: Eva the weaver

Q: Are leaves a good mulch?

A: They are an excellent mulch in most situations as they are full of nutrients that will make a rich soil when broken down.

Q: is leaf mulch better than wood mulch?

A: It depends on the situation, but overall leaves break off faster than wood. They do everything that Holzmulch does.

Q: Can you use fresh leaves as mulch?

Answer: yes. As long as they come from a disease free source and you shred them first, they will work as mulch.

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