The leaves have begun to fall!!!  It’s the time of year when the skyline and ground begin to turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow thanks to all of those beautiful leaves.

Those falling leaves may be a bit of a nuisance to some – but they are one of the best (and cheapest) ways you can ever find to add tons of organic magic to your soil. For us, we collect all we can of that free-falling bounty now to create great compost piles, protect our landscape plants and soil from the harsh winter – and power up next year’s garden!

No falling leaves in your yard?  Don’t despair – the leaves are out there!

If you’re not blessed with trees on your property – take a drive around your area and find neighborhoods that are.  It usually doesn’t take too long to find them – and most people are more than happy to let you take them off of their hands!

Leaves can be used throughout the garden and landscape
Fall’s falling leaves can be used throughout the garden and landscape

Many times, the hard work is done for you – with homeowners already raking leaves to their curb or even bagging them up curbside for pickup.  A simple knock on the door and a friendly asking can usually net you more than you can handle.

For us – a simple evening drive through our heavily wooded neighborhood can fill the old farm truck up with 50 or so bags of ready to go leaves.

Another option is to ask local landscapers cleaning up leaves what they are doing with their haul. Many times, they are just taking them to a local dump – and will gladly drop them off at your house.  It’s a win-win all the way around!

So whatever your source for those leaves – here are three great ways to use them in your garden and landscape!

1. Create Great Compost Piles

Although leaves are plentiful this time of year – some are better than others for your compost piles.  Maple, Birch, Ash, Beech and fruit tree leaves are fantastic to compost and use in the garden and landscape. Oak leaves on the other hand should be composted in moderation.  The leaves of Oak trees tend to be more acidic – too many in the compost pile can result in compost that is less than ideal for most vegetable gardens.    A good rule of thumb  is to no more than 10 to 20% of your total pile to keep it from getting too acidic.

You can make great compost from leaves!
You can make great compost from leaves!

Like anything you put into a compost pile – leaves benefit greatly from being shredded first.  Whole leaves won’t compost quickly if left alone on the ground – and especially in piles where they can bind together and become a soggy matted mess.

If you don’t own a shredder  – no worries.  A regular old push mower or riding mower will do a great job of shredding your leaves into a fine chopped mix.  We gather so many that we just pile them up and take care of business with a riding mower.  In about 15 minutes,  we can reduce 25 garbage bags of leaves into a couple wheelbarrow loads of shredded bits.  However you do it – shred those leaves – the finer the better!

See : Making Great Compost With Leaves

2. Using Leaves as a Garden “Cover Crop”

If you didn’t get a chance to plant a cover crop in your garden this fall – get it covered with a thick coat of those leaves!

Just like a cover crop - a thick coating of leaves can provide protection for your garden soil
Just like a cover crop – a thick coating of leaves can provide protection for your garden soil

Just like a planted cover crop, a thick coating of leaves can keep your garden soil from being exposed to harsh winter rains, snow and winds. Without protection, that exposure can whisk away the top layer of your soil and leave your garden barren for next year.

That coverage also helps to cut down on the next seasons’ weeds by making it hard for blowing and drifting seeds to find a home.  Next spring – simply incorporate those leaves into the soil to add a punch of organic matter to your garden.

And if you don’t quite have a garden yet but want one next year – pile up those leaves in your selected spot to help kill of the grass!

3.  Using Leaves To Protect Your Shrubs and Landscape Plants From Ol’ Man Winter

Whole and shredded leaves are an excellent choice to use around rose bushes, fall planted garlic and onions, asparagus, strawberries, blueberry bushes and many additional landscape plants that need a little protection from freezing and thawing winter temperature.  A thick 2 to 3″ covering can help keep the soil temperature around those plants regulated through the wild swings of winter temps – and keep many from being lost if the thermometer drops too low.

4. Storing Leaves For Next Year’s Garden

Each year in our garden – we like to use  3 basic forms of organic mulch – straw, compost and lots and lots of shredded leaves! All 3 are terrific retainers of moisture, and shredded leaves are one of the best because they are free for the taking!  We use so many in fact, that a few years back we built a “corn-crib” storage bin to store up a big supply to use throughout the next year’s garden season.  You can just as easily create a temporary bin with inexpensive chicken wire fence to store up leaves for your garden.

Shredded Leaves and compost mixed together make a great garden mulch!
Shredded Leaves and compost mixed together make a great garden mulch!

We also shred some of the leaves up and mix them with our compost to put in planting holes and around planted vegetable plants as a mulch.  The compost / shredded leaf mix really helps to retain moisture, and it breaks down quickly, adding those valuable nutrients to the plants. We put about a 1 to 2″ layer of the finished compost/leaf mix about 6″ inches in diameter around the base of each plant. It is wonderful for keeping down weeds and keeping in moisture!

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start collecting those leaves and power up your garden and landscape for free!

Happy Gardening! – Jim and Mary

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