The Value of Leaves


Put Fall Leaves to Work

January 29, 2019
Golden Fall Leaves


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Foliage season is a mixed blessing. I have one eye on the gorgeous spectacle of changing colors and the other eye on the value of these leaves—and how I can put them to work.


Leaves that were just beginning to show some color yesterday will soon be brown and on the ground, their brief moment of glory gone. Here’s how to use those fall leaves to feed your soil instead of sending them to a landfill.

Free Soil Amendment

Look at all those leaves as brown gold. The leaves of one large tree can be worth as much as $50 worth of plant food and humus. They are a rich source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals the tree roots have mined from deep in the subsoil. Pound for pound, leaves contain twice the mineral content of manure. The huge amount of organic matter they offer can be used to improve soil structure. Leaf humus can lighten heavy clay soils and increase the moisture retention of dry sandy soils. No organic gardener should pass up this opportunity for a free soil amendment.


Composting Leaves

If you are not already composting, now is a good time to start. Rake or blow your leaves into loose piles or enclose them in bins, if you wish.

If you want to speed up decomposition, mow over the leaves a few times with your lawn mower or shred them into smaller pieces with a leaf shredder or chipper. Many leaf vacs have a shredder in them to reduce the volume of the leaves being inhaled. Mix a shovelful of soil in each layer of leaves to introduce helpful microorganisms to the pile. Leaves are high in carbon but low in nitrogen so it helps to add a source of nitrogen like manure or grass clippings to help feed the bacteria that will be doing all the work of breaking down the leaves. Spent plants from the garden that were not diseased or infested with insects can be added to the pile along with kitchen scraps.

Making Mulch

Shredded leaves also make a good mulch. Just blow them into your flower beds and under trees and shrubs while mowing. I use a lightweight, no-noise leaf blower for my chores now; it’s just so much quicker.

We cover the beds in our vegetable garden with a layer of chopped leaves to keep the soil from washing away over the winter. The best time to mulch perennials is after the ground has frozen, so put aside another pile of shredded leaves to use later in the fall.


Improve the Soil

Don’t want to rake or blow your leaves at all? Researchers at Michigan State University have proven that mowing leaves and leaving them on your lawn improves the soil, lessening the need for fertilizer in the spring. They recommend setting your mower blade 3 inches high and mowing once a week while the leaves are falling.

As long as you don’t have excessive leaf cover, do not be concerned. Mowed leaves feed worms, fungi, and soil bacteria. Don’t be a perfectionist or fret if you don’t pick up every single leaf! See our fall garden cleanup page for more tasks and tips.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

2019 Garden Guide

Reader Comments

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fungus on leaves

The maples and oaks this year have a fungus that causes the leaves to curl dry up and fall off. Usually I keep all my leaves for mulching. Will this fungus spread if I chop them and use for mulch. Hear different opinions on this. I live south of Boston.
Thanks for helping

Tree fungi can overwinter on

Tree fungi can overwinter on fallen leaves and we are advised by the experts to rake up and remove the infected leaves if we wish to limit next season’s infection. It is not a foolproof way of avoiding the fungus next year since the spores are carried on the wind in early spring and they can blow over from neighboring yards. The leaves can be composted in a hot compost pile to kill off the spores. The only good news is that most of these leaf spot fungi won’t kill a healthy tree, the damage is mainly cosmetic.

tree fungus

Thanks so much for your reply. I am going to compost them as you suggested. They do make great mulch and when chopped up look good.
Have a nice Thanksgiving.

soil at base of or around hedges

This soil is always damp with a bit of moss and seems to be where Creeping Charley starts and keeps coming back -what can be done in this area to discourage this weed

Shady conditions and damp

Shady conditions and damp soil, low in nutrients are perfect for growing moss and creeping Charlie aka ground ivy. Changing the conditions by providing better drainage and pruning the hedges to allow more light to reach the base will help a bit. Creeping Charlie is hard to eradicate. It is a vine in the mint family and spreads by seeds and forms roots at every leaf node along its stems. Pull out as much as you can and apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to smother the plants. In the spring diligently rip out every leaf that pops up. It can cause a rash in sensitive people so wear gloves when handling it. Don’t put the plants on your compost pile; bag it up and send it off to the transfer station.

The Value of Leaves by Robin Sweetser

Are oak leaves good for composting or putting in your garden?

Oak and maple leaves are on

Oak and maple leaves are on the acidic side but they make great compost when mixed with other stuff such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, and spent garden plants. We usually throw some wood ashes onto the compost pile too. They act like lime to sweeten it up. We also use shredded oak & maple leaves as mulch and cover some of our garden beds with them in the fall to protect the soil from washing away during heavy rainfall. Oak leaves are awesome!


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