7 Ways To Use Fall Leaves
The close of the gardening season is always bittersweet. Though there are few more beautiful
places on earth than Wisconsin in the autumn, it’s hard saying goodbye to the lush, green
world for one that's cold and white. Now it's time to reap the season's most abundant crop: leaves.
One of the very best sources of organic matter is autumn leaves. Leaves are packed with
trace minerals that trees draw up from deep in the soil. When added to your garden,
leaves feed earthworms and beneficial microbes. They lighten heavy soils and help sandy
soils retain moisture. Leaves make an attractive mulch in the flower garden. They're a
fabulous source of carbon to balance the nitrogen in your compost pile. And they insulate
tender plants from cold.
When the temperature starts to drop and flowers close up shop for the winter, it’s normal to wonder
where all the little creatures have gone. For most invertebrates, the answer is that they’re still in your
Your garden’s wild residents benefit immensely when you practice good neighbor relations, leaving
things a little messy and wild with a variety of leaves, hollow stems, brush piles or dead wood, soil, and
flower heads available for winter shelter.
By simply doing fewer chores in the fall (and say, enjoying a steaming cup of spiced cider instead,
courtesy of pollinators), your garden will reap the rewards of abundant pollination, natural pest control,
and food for visiting birds and wildlife next spring. Here are 3 examples.
More commonly known as roly-polies, pill bugs are every curious child’s first love. These tiny gray tanks
were introduced to North America from Europe and are isopods, a terrestrial crustacean. While not native,
they are broadly distributed in the more humid conditions under leaves and trees, where they eat detritus.
They are soil creators as they work to eat decaying plant matter, including our fall leaves.
One favorite cavity nesting bee is found in the eastern US. Sweat bees in rotting wood like stumps of trees
that have been cut or large logs. Leaving dead wood and stems in the garden makes for a more interesting
winterscape and architecture in the garden.
Flowers aren’t the only way to add color to your garden. The right overwintering habitat can encourage some
of nature’s most gorgeous metallic bees to make it home. Ceratina species are small, metallic blue-green bees
who nest in the pithy stems of plants, such as canes from raspberries and blackberries, or Spiraea and aster
stems. These bees often have multiple generations a year, so they are a likely garden visitor spring through
Put your leaves to work right. Leaf mulch suppresses weeds and eventually decomposes
and feeds the soil. First, shred up as many of them as you can. If you don't have a leaf
shredder, then pile the leaves up on the lawn and then drive over them a few times with the
lawn mower. Shredding one leaf into five or ten smaller pieces does several good things.
It increases the surface area, giving microbes many more places to work. It prevents the
leaves from packing together into layers that won't let water or air penetrate. And it
reduces the volume dramatically.
Be careful with some kinds of leaves. Walnut, eucalyptus and camphor laurel leaves
contain substances that inhibit plant growth.
If you add shredded leaves right to the soil, add some slow-release nitrogen fertilizers
to help the leaves decompose and to ensure that soil microbes don't use all of the
What is Leaf Mold?
Leaf mold results from letting leaves sit and decompose over time. It is dark brown to
black and has a pleasant earthy aroma and a crumbly texture, much like compost.
Leaf mold may not sound like a good thing, but it does miraculous things for your
garden soil. There are two popular ways to make leaf mold and both are ridiculously
simple. The one thing you'll need to keep in mind is that leaf mold doesn't happen
overnight. Leaves are basically all carbon which takes a lot longer to break down
than nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings. The decomposition process
for leaves takes at least six to twelve months. The good news is that it's basically
six to twelve months with very little work on the gardener's part.
Leaf mold doesn’t add a lot of nutrients to the soil, but it improves the structure
of soil, greatly improving its water holding ability. It also attracts the beneficial
organisms that are so important to a healthy soil.
The first method of making leaf mold consists of either piling your leaves in a
corner of the yard or into a wood or wire bin. The pile or bin should be at least
3 feet wide and tall. Pile up your leaves, and thoroughly dampen the entire
pile. Let it sit, checking the moisture level occasionally during dry periods and
adding water if necessary.
The second method of making leaf mold requires a large plastic garbage bag.
Fill the bag with leaves and moisten them. Seal the bag and then cut some
holes or slits in the bag for air flow. Let it sit. Check the bag every month or
two for moisture, and add water if the leaves are dry.
There are several things you can do to speed up the process: (1) mulch the
leaves first, (2) turn the leaf pile every few weeks and (3) if you are using the
pile or bin method, cover your pile with a plastic tarp
Leaves can be used to insulate tender plants or even for cold storage of
vegetables. To provide a few degrees of protection for plants or planted
containers, circle them with wire fencing and stuff leaves all the way around.
In the spring, rake them up and toss them in the compost.
If you have a root cellar or storage basement, you can use dry leaves to layer
your vegetable in, rather than saw dust or newspaper. They will easily last
Run the lawn mower over them and let them stay on the lawn and feed the
grass. Of course, you don’t want a layer so think that it smothers the grass,
but if you mow a few times, as the leaves gradually fall, the shredded leaves
should disperse enough to allow the grass to breath. At the very least, you
can probably get by with only one raking and then mow over the rest.
This works best if you shred them first, but don’t let that stop you. You can
either turn them into the top few inches of soil or simply spread a layer of
leaves on top of the soil and chop them a bit with a fork or spade. Just make
sure they are making good contact with the soil, then let nature work its wonders.
The leaves will begin to disintegrate and provide a wonderful habitat for
earthworms and other beneficial organisms that reside in your garden soil.
As with mulching with leaves, it would be good if you added some slow
release nitrogen at the same time.
We all know how beautiful fall leaves are when they’re on the trees, but they
don’t lose that beauty just because they drop. Gather some up and dry, press
or otherwise preserve them. This is a fun project for kids and it’s also a great
way to decorate your home with a fall theme. The leaves won’t last forever,
but they will certainly get you through the holiday season.
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