Fallen Leaves – How to Use Fall’s Bounty
If you have an abundance of leaves in your yard, consider yourself lucky! Pound for pound, the leaves of most trees contain twice the mineral content of manure. Tree roots funnel calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus from deep in the soil into their trunks and out to their leaves. 50 to 80 percent of all nutrients that trees extract from the ground end up in the leaves. In addition, leaves can dramatically improve drainage and aeration of soil and also provide excellent nutrition for beneficial microbes, making your soil come alive.
What to do with your leaves? These three options will benefit your garden: mulch, make leaf mold or compost. Whichever choice, gathering leaves as soon as possible is best because this is when they contain the most nitrogen, transmit the most nutrients, and their cells are more easily able to decompose.
Its also highly recommended that the leaves be shredded. Unshredded leaves may take years to break down. The easiest way to shred them is to run a lawn mower over collected leaves a few times. Or, leaves can be placed in a bin and then a whipper snipper can be used to chop them up.
Mulch: Just pile shredded leaves around trees, shrubs and plantings to protect the soil from winter rain compaction and provide insulation from the cold. Unshredded leaves can be used for mulch, but just make sure that they are pulled away from the soil in the Spring as they can form a barrier between the soil and any needed moisture. Shredded leaves are able to work themselves into the soil and become part of the microbiome, allowing moisture and Spring’s warmer temperatures to enter.
Leaf Mold: Leaf mold is made when leaves (only) are left to decompose while in contact with the earth and its many beneficial microbes. Just pile up the leaves (in a cage if possible), ensuring they are relatively moist, turn occasionally, and let them rot. The finer the leaves are shredded, the faster the process (which can take up to three years). If space or time is at a premium, finely shredded leaves can also be turned into to the top layer of the soil. The benefit of leaf mold over regular compost is its function as a soil conditioner–leaf mold absorbs five times its weight in water, makes clay soils more friable, and provides fantastic habitat for soil life.
Compost: shredded leaves can be added to a ‘regular’ compost bin as a brown item (they are mostly carbon). Frequent turning to avoid matting and ensure equal distribution of moisture will allow the leaves to break down quickly. A good ratio that will heat up and break down your compost pile nicely is roughly four-parts brown material to one-part green material.
Even if you don’t have a garden to spread your shredded leaves onto (or you just don’t want to go to the trouble), running a lawn mower over collected leaves and letting them settle into the grass will provide many benefits—they are appreciated by earthworms and microorganisms—and it’s much easier than packing them up and sending them off to the landfill!