We don’t call it “fall” around here for nothing.
The colorful foliage that delights the senses and draws thousands of tourists (New Hampshire's biggest industry) precedes the literal fall, when most of the deciduous trees send their leaves drifting to the ground.
Fallen leaves rustle underfoot. They smell good. The wind sometimes whips them into a frenzy of dancing shapes.
Many communities around here make compost from the leaves residents drop off at dumps and transfer stations; the larger towns and cities hold leaf- and-yard-waste collections. I’ve just finished spreading a pickup load of Concord's leaf compost in my vegetable garden.
If lots of leaves have fallen in your yard, why not put them to good use right at home? For example:
- Leave them in place and mow over them a few times. The easiest solution. The chopped leaves will break down quickly in spring and add valuable organic matter and mineral nutrients to the lawn.
- Spread them as protective mulch. Leaves make a good insulating cover for overwintering tender perennials or root crops stored in the ground. A heavy leaf cover allows fall-planted garlic to root without sprouting, and prevents shallow-rooted strawberries from heaving during winter’s freeze-thaw cycles.
- Use them as a weed barrier for spring plantings. Chopped or left whole, leaves make excellent mulch for vegetable crops, blueberries (and other berries), and ornamental shrubs. They not only suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture, but because they contain no weed seeds themselves, they won’t encourage the spread of new weeds.
- Make compost. Carbon-rich leaves pair well with summer’s nitrogen-rich grass clippings. Layer three or four inches of old leaves with an inch of fresh grass clippings or other green leafy yard waste.
- Make leaf mold. Leaf mold is a special kind of all-leaf compost much beloved by English gardeners. It simply involves collecting and storing leaves, shredded or not, in plastic bags or wire bins. Keep the leaves moist, and let the fungi take over. After two or three years, the leaves will have disintegrated into a dark, sweet-smelling, soil conditioner, high in essential minerals. Its exceptional water-retentive property makes it an ideal amendment for loose, sandy soil.
- Store root vegetables. If you have a cool, humid spot, you can store carrots, beets, and other root vegetables between layers of crisp, freshly fallen leaves. Sprinkle each layer of leaves with water (don’t let them get soggy). If you don’t grow your own vegetables, visit a farmers’ market and try to find a vendors who will sell you half a bushel or more of your favorite root crops.
- Make a playground. This video of Butch, a Siberian husky joyously leaping around in a leaf pile, reminded me of the wonderful fun my siblings and friends had leaping around in the big leaf piles we’d rake from ourlawns each fall. Back in those days, our dads touched off the leaf piles in the late afternoon, and we roasted potatoes and apples while the giant piles burned to ash. Most jurisdictions rightly prohibit open leaf-burning these days to reduce air pollution, but the smell of a burning leaf still triggers powerful memories of those idyllic days.
- There’s no end of crafts that use fall leaves. My favorite: preserving the rich fall colors by “glycerinizing” a few stems of the most colorful maples.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.