Friday, October 30, 2015

Fall Garden Tips: Use Those Leaves!

MapleLeavesCornellUHILeaves. Some folks love them, some folks hate them; I think it mostly depends on how much room you have for them. Folks who live in towns or cities with small yards and large, mature shade trees can feel overwhelmed with all the leaves. But the rest of us with a little more space really cannot complain as those leaves are a wonderful resource!

While I waited for the young trees I planted around our house to grow I used to gather those bags of leaves along the city curbs. Now my trees are finally large enough that I have plenty.

If you care about your lawn you can just mow over the fallen leaves and let them sit right there, to gradually decompose over the winter. You do not want such a thick layer that they smother the grass, but a light layer that can work its way down between the grass blades is ideal and benefits the lawn by adding organic matter to the soil.

Any extra mowed leaves can be raked under shrubs, around the base of trees, and into any garden areas to serve as natural mulch. Why buy bags of bark mulch when you’ve got a steady supply right here?

Add Leaves to Compost Bins

I stockpile as many leaves as I can next to my compost bins. I have learned to keep a layer about one foot deep in my active bin into which I bury my food scraps every few days. Once that layer is full of scraps I add another 12 inches of leaves and continue adding.

I keep an empty bin next to my active bin to hold a supply of leaves, but I need more than that to get through the year, so I also keep a pile nearby. If I don’t end up using all those leaves in my bins, they decompose on their own into leaf mold which is a wonderful addition to any garden, just as it is.

Natural Garden and Lawn Mulch

I have a honey locust tree close to one of my perennial beds that drops its leaves late in the fall. Honey locust and ash trees have compound leaves, made of smaller leaflets that are the ideal size for mulching. I could just let the honey locust leaves decompose right into the lawn but my clay garden soil needs a lot of organic matter so I rake them into the garden each year. By spring they are gone, decomposed into humus for my soil. Birch leaves are also small enough to use without chopping.

Mince Maple Leaves with Mower

Maple leaves create wonderful humus but most are so large you really need to chop them up before using them as mulch. You can run your lawn mower over them and use the bagging attachment to gather them if you like, or use your mower to blow them into a windrow for easier raking. I use an old bedsheet to gather them in which is easy to drag across the yard.
Oak leaves aren’t toxic, but they contain tannins that resist decomposing so they don’t work as well as a source of organic matter. You can use them for mulch as you would use wood chips, but don’t hoard them for mulch or compost as you would maple leaves.

I try to not leave any garden soil exposed over the winter. I haul my leaves over to my vegetable beds with that old sheet and spread a nice layer over the ground. The wind tends to blow them around but most of the soil stays pretty well covered. In spring I can either rake back any remaining leaves or turn them into the soil as soon as it’s dry enough to work. Organic matter is constantly being transformed by microorganisms in the soil so gardeners need to keep adding more every year.

Photo courtesy Cornell University’s Urban Horticulture Institute.


Amy Ivy

Amy Ivy is a Regional Vegetable and Berry Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program. Amy also often leads local foods production research funded by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. She can be reached at 518-570-5991, adi2@cornell.edu.


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One Response

  1. Boreas says:

    It is also a good idea to add earthworms to your garden soil periodically to improve the organic structure of the soil and keep it from becoming too compact.