We don’t call it “fall” around here for nothing. If lots of leaves have fallen in your yard, why not put them to good use right at home? Here are eight ways to use fall leaves.
The colorful foliage that delights the senses 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.
However, fall leaves could also be considered free organic fertilizer right in your yard! And, though there is labor involved, you need to rake or blow them up or they’ll smother your lawn and create other issues.
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 my town’s leaf compost in my vegetable garden.
How to Use Fall Leaves
The first step is to rake up those leaves—or, if you have a larger yard, use a leaf blower; today, there are many low-noise, lightweight options.
- Mow back over the leaves a few times. The chopped leaves will break down quickly in spring and add valuable organic matter and mineral nutrients to the lawn. The trick is to mow frequently, before over six inches of leaves fall. Another trick is to remove the bagging attachment with the first pass. Mow the leaf piles and allow them to fall onto the turf. Then make a second pass with the bagging attachment in place. The chopped leaves will now be sucked into the bag.
- Spread them as protective mulch for the landscape. Chopped leaves can be spread around trees, shrubs and gardens to help conserve moisture and control weed growth. Leaves make a good insulating cover for overwintering tender perennials or root crops stored in the ground. 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 for a valuable soil amendment. 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. It’s exceptional. See our video on how to make leaf mold.
- 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 vendor who will sell you half a bushel or more of your favorite root crops.
- Make a playground. My siblings, friends, and I used to have tons of fun leaping around in the big leaf piles we’d rake from our lawns 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 to crafts that use fall leaves. My favorite: preserving the rich fall colors by “glycerinizing” a few stems of the most colorful maples.