Autumn Leaves: 7 Ways To Use Them

Family raking 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.

Here are 7 ways to put autumn leaves to work.

1.  Mulch

Leaf shredder Put your leaves to work right. Leaves 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, the leaves pile 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 available nitrogen.

2.  Leaf Mold

Gathering leaves by hand 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.

Shredding leaves 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 three 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

3.  Insulation

Mulch leaves with lawn mower 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 through winter.

4.  Leave Them Be

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.

5.  Amend The Soil

Fall garden 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.

6.  Preserve Them

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.

7.  Fall Leave Projects

Fall leaf projects •  7 Ways T Turn Your Fall Leaf Collection Into Art

•  Fall Crafts With Leaves

•  Leaf Crafts For Kids