I think it’s fairly safe to assume most people dread the mess and work involved in cleaning up all those fall leaves that blanket their yards each year.
Call me weird, but dealing with fall leaves in my yard is one of the highlights of the year for me. While I don’t relish the investment of time in relocating them from the lawn to the beds, I do see it for exactly that–an investment.
For many years, I’ve been gathering, blowing and raking leaves onto a flat area of my lawn where I can grind them up with my mulching mower and then rake them back into my beds as a shredded layer of organic mulch. Even if you don’t have enough leaves to collect from your own yard, you don’t have to look very far to find neighbors or friends who are happy to let you take them off their hands.
It’s money in the bank with long-term benefits. The shredded leaves will immediately go to work keeping soil and roots warmer, retaining moisture, and preventing many weeds from germinating.
Over time, those leaves will break down into rich, organic compost that will do wonders for improving the quality of any soil.
While it’s not an overnight transformation, in a few years, even hard packed clay will improve to an impressive mix of rich loamy soil several inches deep. Moreover, plants and trees love the constant addition of organic matter and nutrients. You’ll love how easy it becomes to dig into that soil when installing new plants, thanks to the work of those decaying leaves becoming a permanent part of what lies beneath your feet.
The steps involved in converting leaves into rich, loamy organic matter that adds life to any garden soil is a simple process.
- First, gather all the leaves you intend to shred onto an area where you can mow over them with your mulching mower or bagging attachment. Be sure not to create a layer of leaves that may be so think that it bogs your mower down. I find that a layer of a few inches works well. I also find that wet leaves may this process a lot less efficient. Try to avoid doing this project when leaves are wet. Mow over your leaves once or twice. Smaller pieces bind together better in the beds and break down faster to improve your soil more quickly.
- Once the leaves have been chopped into many smaller pieces, rake, blow or transfer the shredded leaves directly into your adjacent beds or into a container for redistribution to desired locations. Apply enough leaf mulch to cover the surface, ideally about 2″ thick. While it’s fine to leave a thin layer of leaves on the lawn, avoid leaving any amount that may significantly cover much of your grass.
- While the first two steps are sufficient to benefit from the leaf mulch, an optional third step is to apply an additional layer of mulch on top of the leaves. While it sounds excessive, instances where this may be desirable is if you want to make sure the leaves are weighed down sufficiently to reduce the chance of any blowing away. Or, you may want the look of a more consistent mulch cover, such as pine straw or hardwood mulch throughout your beds. Either way, the extra mulch (assuming it’s not too thick (more than 4″) will provide another layer of organic matter that will eventually break down, adding even more valuable organic matter to your soil).
That’s all there is to it. In my garden beds, I’m happy to say my former hard, red Georgia clay is a rich, loamy, easy to work with soil after about 4 – 5 years of repeated annual deposits. While that may not seem very fast, keep in mind, it’s effortless once the leaves are in place. And once they do break down, as I’ve written previously, it only gets better after that.
Larry Weaver says
My yard has been really struggling to survive these past few years. Thanks for mentioning that fall leaves can break down into rich, organic compost and helps to improve the quality of your soil. When the fall season comes around, I’ll be sure to look into mulching my leaves in an effort to save my yard.
I just got a new tiller. I live in Kannapolis, NC. When do I start preparing a garden. I like the idea about the leaves in the garden to reduce weeds.
Joe Lamp'l says
Check with your local cooperative extension service to find out what the frost free date is in your region.
Here outside of Atlanta, it is normally around April 15. You many want to begin preparing your soil in February or March.
Of course if you are starting plants from seed (indoors) you will want to allow about two months from the time you sow the seed, then transplant them to pots and finally in the garden when temperatures (both air and soil) have warmed up. Here is a link for a post about preparing the garden for spring.https://www.growingagreenerworld.com/preparing-garden-spring/ I hope this helps. Have a great year in the garden!
My ?: I have ground cover like weeds in my garden. Is it better to uproot them or to let the whole green plant be covered with leaf mulch.
Joe Lamp'l says
If the groundcover is something you don’t want, I would suggest digging up the plants and roots and then putting down a 2 inch layer of mulch.
Just covering it with mulch will probably not solve your problem.
Urban Oen says
In my vegetable garden, I used to rototill in 400 bags of leaves from friends in the fall of the year here in Northern Illinois. What I have found is that the garden stays damp and cold in early spring. I usually rototill my garden on March 30th so I can plant my cold weather crops the first two weeks of April. With leaves I could not do that. Instead I compost them and rototill in the compost in the fall. Compost does make the garden soil very loose and fertile.
Joe Lamp'l says
Good point Urban. In the perfect world, I love to compost my leaves and everything else separately and then add them where I want them and work it in. But in a general bed setting as I was describing in my article, allowing them to rot in place will provide excellent results over time. But I’m with you–there’s nothing better then adding leaves or anything else you want to improve your soil to your compost pile first. Thanks for sharing your observations.
I don’t see where earth worms were ever mentioned. The mulched leaves attract earth worms and they are worth their weight in gold.
Joe Lamp'l says
You’re right Paul. While I didn’t specifically mention earthworks, they’re the stars of the show for making the magic happen. They’re the great decomposers of the soil, bringing down the leaf bits from the soil surface, consuming them and breaking them down more quickly than all the other microbes combined. It’s always a matter of how much to say when writing an article. I could go on for days, but it’s always a struggle about what to include vs. what to leave out. Thanks for pointing it out. The earthworms certainly deserve their credit for the role they play.
Steve Fine says
Loved your thoughts on using leaves to improve soil quality. One question: I have a lot of pine trees on my property that drop a lot on pine needles on my lawn. Is it OK to mulch those pine needles along with the leaves, or must I remove the pine needles before mulching with my mower?
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Steve. There is no reason you need to remove the pine needles from a horticultural standpoint. The only thing I see is the inconsistency aesthetically of mixing the leaves and pine needles (for those that care). I don’t and would not go to the trouble and extra work of separating them.
What is a mulching mower and where exactly can I get one? We live in northern New Jersey and I’m sick of hauling my leaves to the towns recycling center. I’d much prefer to keep them in my yard.
Thanks so much for your help,
Joe Lamp'l says
Ah, good question Leslie. A ‘mulching mower’ is likely the same mower you have now. But rather than use the bagging attachment, that opening or shoot where the leaves are blown into the bag is covered. So rather than the leaves being ejected into the bag, they are forced to remain under the mowing deck, where they are chopped up longer as the blade continues to circulate. The result is much smaller pieces that stay on the ground.
The beauty of a mulch mower beyond just the fall is that every time you mow, the grass clippings are chopped so small you don’t see them in the grass, but they are full of nitrogen so they are returning a natural form of fertilizer to your lawn AND improving you soil with every mowing.
See if your mower came with an attachment that allows you to block the opening to where the bagger is connected. If not, when you look to buy a new mower, make sure you inquire about this. Most mowers sold today include this feature. It’s so much more practical and makes the mowing process go much faster.
I have been using leaf mould as a compost for many years. It is indeed the best soil medium that can be safely used for flowers, veggies, fruit and evergreens. Mixing it with rice ash it becomes even more potent and effective. 50% rice ash + 50% leaf mould . Try and see the miracle.