Learn more and buy the 2015 Old Farmer's Almanac!

What To Do With Fall Leaves

September 25, 2013

Credit: Joanna Lee Osborn
PrintPrintEmailEmail
Your rating: None Average: 5 of 5 (3 votes)

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. 

Photo credit: Joanna Lee Osborn. Some rights reserved
 

Related Articles


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.

Comments

Last fall I used pine needles

By Susan Tennant

Last fall I used pine needles as a mulch. Our neighbor has huge pine trees bordering their yard. After asking if I might use some I moved them to surround the bottom of my Rhododendran, I might add it was beautiful the spring prior to this. We had taken such good care of it for the seven years we were able to enjoy its beautiful flowers. To make a long story short, not knowing this at the time, one or more of the pine trees had that terrible blite that went around our state. It killed my Rhododendran. I am sure all of you are very careful, after this episode I am much more careful as to what I use for over wintering my perenials.

Susan, are you sure it was

By Margaret Boyles

Susan, are you sure it was the pine-needle mulch that killed your rhododendron? 

If you haven't already, I'd suggest consulting a horticultural expert or a plant-disease specialist through your county (or state) Cooperative Extension office.

Most states have labs that will diagnose plant diseases from samples and suggest remedies (if any), or at least help you track down the cause. 

Thank you for the suggestion

By Susan Tennant

Thank you for the suggestion and I will do that, as of right now I do feel the needles were the cause.
Thank you for your reply and suggestion.
Susan

I'd like to use my leaves as

By Lois Keel

I'd like to use my leaves as compost, but oak leaves are very acidic. I know that only works for some types of plants. (Trilliums are a wild member of the orchid family and love acid soil.) Would they help or hurt roses?

I'd like to use them as

By Lois Keel

I'd like to use them as mulch, but oak leaves are very acidic. Would there be a problem with roses?

Go right ahead, Lois. It's

By Margaret Boyles

Go right ahead, Lois. It's true that fresh oak leaves contain acidic compounds, but the decomposition process neutralizes these acids and shouldn't affect the pH of your soil.

Running a lawn mower over the leaves to chop them will produce a better-quality, better-looking mulch that will decompose more rapidly and won't be so likely to blow off in the wind.

Most experts reommend having your soil tested every two or three years, not just to determine is pH, but also to check the levels of plant nutrients.

Here's a good fact sheet on organic mulches.

Thank you, Margaret. Your

By Lois Keel

Thank you, Margaret.

Your fact sheet confused me a bit on this: If quickly decaying organic mulches such as fresh leaves, wood chips, and straw, are used, a considerable amount of nitrogen is taken from the soil by the micro-organisms decomposing the organic matter. This reduces the nitrogen reserves in the root zone of the growing plant. If additions of nitrogenous fertilizer aren't made regularly, a nitrogen deficiency may result.

Also it says: Leaves are the least expensive mulch available but make a better mulch if composted.

How should I compost the leaves? Will the chopping up by a lawn mower let them compost in place? I figure I need to make tubes around my roses. They are "carpet roses", so they are fairly low and wide. As for soil testing, do I just take a sample to my local cooperative extension?

Lots of questions! Relative

By Margaret Boyles

Lots of questions! Relative to causing a nitrogen deficit in the root zone, just keep fertilizing your roses as you always do. Your mulch will break down slowly and won't deplete nitrogen at the root zone. But check out this column that contains information specific to roses.

Compost chopped leaves as a carbon-rich addition to an ordinary compost pile. Or make leaf-mold compost—just pile leaves (chopped or whole)and leave them alone for a couple of years.

Give your local extension office a call to see if they accept soil samples for testing. If they do, they'll give you instructions for collecting your sample. If they don't, they should have information on where you can send it.

 

 

 

Thank-you for this blog. I

By georgie430

Thank-you for this blog. I want to use my leaves for compost. Only problem s I have a lot of pine tree needles also falling. Do you think if I try to shred them with a lawn mower, I can then use the whole blend with my shredded greens??

I have so much nitrogen rich leftovers. I will put all my vege and fruit scrapes in the blender and I have pulp from juicing. Just have a problem with adequate carbon. Any suggestions greatly appreciated

Pine needles decompose very

By Margaret Boyles

Pine needles decompose very slowly, even when shredded, so don't add too much of the leaf/needle mixture to your compost pile. A better choice might be to use the shredded mixture as a weed-suppressing, water-retaining mulch in your garden.
 
 
To increase the carbon content of your compost, why not ask your neighbors if you can scrounge bags or piles of fall leaves they won't be using. Non-diseased garden debris (leaves, stems, flowers from dead plants)is another option.
 

Post new comment

Before posting, please review all comments. Due to the volume of questions, Almanac editors can respond only occasionally, as time allows. We also welcome tips from our wonderful Almanac community!

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.