Every fall, we are left with a decision: to rake or not to rake. That is the question. And then, after we’ve raked our leaves up, should we burn them? Should we bag them? Should we pile them up? What good is a leaf pile, anyway?
Fallen leaves are the byproduct of our deciduous trees preparing for winter. They suck back in as much energy as possible from their leaves and shed them as brown, crunchy afterthoughts. But did you know tree leaves are high in carbon and other important plant nutrients? Did you know carbon “feeds” the soil? Did you know you can utilize leaves in your garden or around your home? They’re not useless dead plant material to haul away.
I’ll share 11 ways to give your fall leaves a second life in this article. Some of these ideas may be unexpected. Read on to change your perception of leaves from nuisance to gold mine!
1. Add to a compost pile.
These leaves are rich in carbon and packed with valuable nutrients.
Probably the easiest and most common way to reuse fallen leaves from your trees is to add them to your compost pile. Leaves are high in carbon and full of nutrients. They break down slower than components like grass clippings but will break down faster than sawdust or wood chips.
Don’t have a compost pile? Making a pile of leaves is a great place to start. You can add in other amendments like kitchen scraps, manure, grass clippings, wood chips, sawdust, and straw or hay. Make sure you turn your pile for even decomposition. Compost takes some time to break down, so be patient.
2. Make leaf mold.
Making leaf mold is simple and similar to composting, except it exclusively involves leaves.
Leaf mold is similar to compost, but the difference is that you’re making compost out of leaves only. Think about a forest floor. If you brush away the newly fallen debris, you’ll often see a layer of dark, crumbly soil. Because forest floors are not disturbed like gardens, fields, and yards, this material you’re seeing is basically leaf mold (i.e., decomposed leaves).
Leaf mold can take up to six months to make (depending on your method), but it’s really easy to make leaf mold, and your plants will reward you later.
3. Use as mulch for perennials.
Fall is ideal for using leaves as mulch around your perennials and shrubs.
Use fall leaves as mulch for your perennials and shrubs! Fall is a great time to add a layer of mulch around plants to provide insulation for the coming winter months. If you’re already raking them into piles, why not use them in the landscaping?
Also, leaves will break down much faster than wood and bark mulches, so there’s less need in the spring to pull them back away from the canes or stems.
4. Store with your root vegetables.
Prepare for winter by experimenting with root crop storage.
You can stockpile root crops like carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions, and more, either outside or inside. As long as they’re insulated from extreme temperatures, you can pull root vegetables from your stockpile for quite some time.
If you leave crops in the ground, add a thick layer of leaves above your root crops to provide extra insulation. When you’re ready to cook, simply brush them back and pull your root crop for supper!
When the temperatures dip too low, you might consider storing your root crops in a basement or cellar. Knowing how to pack your harvest is important! Usually, root crops will last longer if they’re layered in a medium like potting soil, sand, leaves, straw, and even dry grass clippings.
Experiment with root crop storage and leaves by spritzing the leaves with water (you want them moist but not soggy) and then layering your root crops like carrots within them. Store them in a bin in a dark, cool spot, and you should be ready for winter!
5. Layer above your fall-planted bulbs.
Cover your fall-planted bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils.
Another use for leaves you may not have considered is to layer them above your fall-planted bulbs like tulips and daffodils.
As a cut flower farmer, I plant tulips in a six to eight-inch-deep trench. I want to ensure that my bulbs are buried deep enough to be protected from harsh conditions, but I also want the soil to be loose enough that I can pull the bulbs in the spring. Cut flower growers usually pull tulip stems when harvesting instead of cutting the stems. Harvesting tulips with the bulbs on allows them to be held and stored much longer, increasing my time to get them out on the market.
In my heavy clay soil, the first year I grew tulips, the stems would snap off the bulb when I harvested. So, the next year, I decided that instead of backfilling with soil after planting my bulbs, I would first add a light layer of leaves on top of the bulbs. The results were amazing the following spring! Every bulb came up nice and loose.
Also, as a plus, the leaves decay over time and provide nutrients for the bulbs. So, even if you aren’t a cut flower farmer who pulls your tulip bulbs out each spring, adding a leaf layer over your bulbs will help reduce the settling of the soil and act as a slow-release fertilizer for your bulbs. It’s a win-win in my book!
6. Spread over your garden.
Covering your garden with a layer of leaves is an excellent practice.
Another great practice is to spread your leaves over your garden to act as a light cover for the soil. Many gardeners will mow off their vegetable garden or till the soil in the fall, exposing it to wind and rain factors that lead to erosion and soil loss.
Covering your garden with a leaf layer adds nutrients to the soil, increases water infiltration, and reduces soil exposure to wind and rain.
7. Make liquid fertilizer.
The leaf nutrients can be extracted by soaking them in rainwater for several days to weeks.
Natural fertilizers are very important for the garden and plants. We are seeing more and more of these fertilizers on the market, but how cool would it be if you could make your own?
Just like we may use herbs soaked in water to create herbal teas for their potential health benefits, we can also use things like leaves, bones, roots, and other plant material to make extracts to use for our plants as fertilizer. The best part is most of these natural fertilizers are full of beneficial microorganisms that help prevent disease or increase the likelihood of nutrient uptake by the plant.
By soaking leaves or other plant material in a bucket of rainwater for days to weeks, the nutrients held within will eventually be released into the water as the leaves decompose. We can filter and dilute this solution to apply it as a soil drench in our garden, raised beds, or patio pots. The remaining partially-decayed leaves are a perfect addition to the compost pile.
8. Amend your raised beds.
Because organic matter breaks down, raised beds need new materials like fall leaves.
Raised beds provide many benefits, but they rely on you more than the soil naturally does. Over time, your beds can become depleted of nutrients and even soil! When you remove old plant material to tidy up your beds in the fall, you remove carbon, various nutrients, and even soil clinging to the plant roots.
For these reasons, our raised beds need a tune-up occasionally. Adding new compost each year is an option, but another great way to add more carbon and nutrients to your soil is to add leaves to your raised bed – a resource you already have on hand!
Topdress the bed with leaves to act as a mulch, naturally releasing carbon and nutrients and slowing rainwater down to increase infiltration. Alternatively, you can incorporate them with a rake or shovel for faster breakdown. Shredding them will decrease the breakdown time.
9. Create a no-dig garden bed.
You can enjoy a bountiful harvest while minimizing soil impact by layering different materials.
No-dig garden beds are becoming wildly popular. You create less work for yourself (with weeding or digging out plant material), reduce your impact on the soil, and reap a bountiful harvest just by layering different materials. Eventually, the soil, compost, and amendments get all mixed up and populated by microorganisms, earthworms, and other soil critters.
When creating a no-dig bed, you must lay down some thick carbon-based material as your base. This helps smother any present growing plants (like grass in your yard), prevents immediate weed growth, and adds a generous source of carbon, which little soil microbes go nuts about. Many people use cardboard for this purpose.
An alternative to cardboard could be a thick layer of leaves instead! They will break down faster than cardboard, so lay a thick layer to get the ultimate smothering and weed prevention you’ll need when getting started.
Another way you can use leaves in a no-dig garden bed is by layering them above the cardboard. This is more like the hugelkultur or lasagna method for creating a no-dig garden bed, but by now, you should get the picture. Layer, layer, layer! Finish with some nice, loose compost. Over time, your layers will break down to create a beautiful, fertile garden bed.
10. Create wildlife habitat.
Leaves serve as a shelter and winter refuge for various small creatures.
It’s easy to think that we aren’t affecting wildlife by raking and burning our leaves, but think again! Leaves provide habitat and winter protection for small insects and critters like spiders, snails, worms, beetles, mites, millipedes, and more.
Many of these insects are important for our gardens, as they help break down plant material and incorporate it within the soil, but they’re also part of the food web! Larger creatures like chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians eat these little guys.
If you don’t want to leave them on your lawn, consider raking them to the edge of your yard to provide wildlife habitat for the small invertebrates we rarely consider.
11. Mow to fertilize your lawn.
Utilizing the natural fertilizing power of grass blades on your lawn is cost-effective and time-saving.
This last little tip should come as no surprise! Leave the leaves on your lawn to “fertilize” your lawn. Why waste all those nutrients? Let your leaves break down naturally and release their nutrients to your lawn. Save a few bucks (and time!) by utilizing your existing resources.
One tip if you’re eager to do this is to mow your leaves. The smaller the pieces, the faster the plant material breaks down and releases nutrients. By mowing, you’ll prevent them from smothering out your lawn in places where they might get piled up too thick. Take a quick pass with the mower, and you’re ready!
Fallen tree leaves have so many uses! It’s all a matter of changing our mindset around what’s normally considered a nuisance to homeowners. Leaves are packed with carbon and nutrients. They can act as an alternative to hardwood mulch and can be mixed, chopped, and fermented according to our needs. This fall, I encourage you to think before you rake. How will you give your leaves a second life this year?