Fall is officially upon us. It’s the season of cooler weather, soups, spooky decorations, and a lot of leaves. While your kids or dog may enjoy jumping into a big pile of those fallen leaves, what should you do with them after the fun is over? Many people bag and bin them, but there are more environmentally friendly options.
Composting uses natural decomposition to convert organic material like leaves into a nutrient-packed soil amendment or mulch. It’s an environmentally friendly way to dispose of organic materials and helps combat climate change by reducing items dumped in landfills. When applies to your yard, it’s also helpful for soil health, improved garden results, conserving water, and limiting soil erosion. People often compost at home with their food scraps, and leaves are a good addition.
You can gradually add shredded leaves, which break down faster, to the compost bin, storing them in bags in the interim. It’s a good idea to pair them with items like grass clippings and food scraps, which are high in nitrogen, as they help carbon-rich leaves break down faster.
Use Them as Mulch
The easiest way to address leaves is to leaf them where they are. You can mow over them, provided they aren’t too thick, and let those shredded pieces benefit your yard. The minerals they contain can lighten heavy soils, help soils retain moisture, and their presence will also increase the number of earthworms and other beneficial organisms in the soil. Just be sure to mow or shred them in some way, as big piles of uncut leaves can form a layer water can’t penetrate.
Apart from your lawn, leaf mulch can also be beneficial when applied directly to your garden. Spreading it throughout your garden prior to the winter can help keep weeds at bay. In the spring, once it’s broken down, it’ll bring the previously mentioned soil benefits to whatever you choose to grow.
Use Them to Protect Other Plants
Mulched leaves can also help you harvest plants well into the winter. Covering the bare soil around certain cold weather tolerant crops can protect them long enough to keep them producing. This includes carrots, kale, leeks, and beets.
The mulch can also protect tender perennials throughout the cold months. Once hard frosts have set in, just add a several inch layer of mulch above the plants. Then remove it when the spring arrives.
Make Leaf Mold
Another option for those fallen leaves is leaf mold, an alternative to peat moss. This can be made either by piling leaves in a sheltered, hidden area in your yard and letting them sit there for a couple of years, or by making a leaf mold bin out of wire and placing them inside. You can speed the process along by turning the leaves over every couple of months. Keeping the leaves moist is key, too. In this process, fungi drives things along rather than the bacteria in composting.
What you’re left with is a soil amendment that can significantly boost water retention and provide a good environment for beneficial organisms. Scatter it around – but not directly on – annuals, perennials, and vegetables to help them maintain their moisture.
If you’ve used all the leaves you can for mulch, and even shared with your friends, but you still have extras, you can see if your city offers leaf recycling services. This may involve taking them to a leaf drop off site where they’ll later be made into compost available to other community members. There may also be commercial recycling options available.
Use Them to Help Wildlife
Want to help a pollinator? You could, again, just leave some of the leaves around. Bumble bees are among the animals that seek shelter provided by leaf litter during the winter. They burrow just below the soil and get extra insulation from the leaves. Other leaf-dependent animals include butterflies, moths, and even birds, that rely on the bugs overwintering in the leaf litter for food. Hedgehogs are often found hibernating under piles of leaves, too!
You may not want to have your entire yard overtaken by leaves for this purpose, but just dedicating a small corner as wildlife habitat can be a big help to these species.