You’ve traded the lawn mower for the rake. You’ve gone outside in the crisp, cool weather and gathered those fallen leaves off your lawn. But now those big piles of leaves are looming large, and the fun of jumping in them is subsiding. What the heck are you gonna do with all those leaves?

Leaf pile

These oak leaves make a great mulch when shredded.

Photo Credit: ©2006 Frank M. Tansey

Leaf mold

This leaf mold was created from shredded tree leaves.

Photo Credit: ©2006 Frank M. Tansey

Ground leaf mulch

Shredded oak leaves make a great mulch for a tri-colored beech tree in an atrium planter.

Photo Credit: ©2006 Frank M. Tansey

Use them in your garden!

Leaves can provide at least two useful materials for your yard: leaf mulch and leaf mold. Let’s start with the mulch.

My former landlords enthusiastically encouraged me and my roommate to hand over the leaves we’d rake to make mulch. They put the leaves through a giant shredder, then gave it all back to us to simply spread on top of the soil in our garden. If you don’t have a shredder, you can run a lawn mower over a pile of leaves a few times. (Seriously – that’s all you’d do.) A mower with a clipping bag is ideal for this. Another way to shred the leaves is to put them in a garbage can and use a string trimmer to “blend” the leaves into pieces. (Always wear safety goggles when shredding!) Truth is, you don’t actually have to shred the leaves – it’s just that we found that the chopped leaves stayed put better than whole leaves, despite the winter wind.

A great time to mulch your garden is after the first few frosts. Clear the area of dead vegetation in your planting beds, then apply about 2 inches of your leaf mulch. The benefits of using leaf mulch are many, including keeping down weeds, protecting the soil from temperature extremes, preventing soil erosion and adding nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose. After doing this just once, I didn’t question why my landlords were so enthusiastic about leaf mulch.

Leaf mold is a flaky, homemade material not widely available commercially. It’s derived from decomposed leaves (leaves that have been exposed to weather and time) and serves as a carbon-rich ingredient for improving soil structure. (It’s also known as “leaf mould” or “horticultural mold.”)

The only downside to leaf mold is it takes a bit of time to cultivate (about six to 12 months). But the process to make it is simple: Just put fallen leaves into a bin or wire enclosure, and turn them every month or so. If the leaves have already been bagged, they can be composted right inside it: Poke a few holes in the side of the bag for circulation and store it in a dry place. Small leaves (like birch or Japanese maple foliage) will be ready in six months – just in time for spring projects. If you’re using larger leaves (like magnolia and bigleaf maple) it’ll help to shred or chop the leaves first. (Chopping or shredding helps leaves decompose more efficiently.)

Your local government may also help you handle your leaves. Often city or county Public Works branches not only take collected leaves, they’ll return them to you in the form of mulch or mold. Residents can usually pick up the converted leaves on their own, or they can request delivery at a relatively low cost. Some localities, such as Santa Clara, CA, even offer free workshops on composting. Check with your local Public Works or County Extension Service to find out if they offer such programs in your area.

No matter where or how you recycle your leaves, they’re sure to be a great (and free) resource for your garden. Use them to your garden’s advantage!