Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves

Three ways to use leaves to benefit your trees and shrubs.

Leaves are a fantastic source of organic material you can use to feed your trees and shrubs. Instead of bagging them up and removing them from your yard, there are several ways you can use them to your plants' benefit. You can rake them into your beds, you can compost them, and you can shred them into your grassy areas.

Leaves as mulch

Leaves make great mulch around your trees and shrubs because they add nutrients to the soil and protect the roots from harsh winter weather. They also provide a place for many important insects and pollinators to survive during winter. Last but not least, leaves are part of the tree’s natural cycle, and as such, they are one of the best ways to feed your trees.

Here are some suggestions for how to proceed:

  1. Rake the leaves into piles or existing beds under your trees and shrubs. To prevent any potential trunk rot or disease, be sure that the leaves do not cover the trunk.
  2. If you find the look of leaves unappealing, especially as they start to turn brown, you can cover them in pine straw or wood chips. Doing this has the double benefit of adding nutrients to the soil and providing a consistent, aesthetically pleasing look.
  3. BONUS: Shred the leaves with a regular lawn mower or mulching mower. This can help prevent them from blowing away. If the leaves are already wet or you’re not worried about them blowing away, you can skip this step. This is certainly not required.

Leaves as compost

Leaf compost requires a few extra steps, but turns leaves into a conditioner that improves soil structure and helps it retain water.

To turn leaves into compost, follow these simple steps:

  1. Shred the leaves with a regular lawn mower or mulching mower. The shredding helps the leaves decompose more quickly. If you’re not in a hurry for them to break down, you can skip this step.
  2. Pile the leaves into a compositing bin or any suitable container that will keep them at least a few feet deep and closely compacted. If the leaves are spread too thinly, they will dry out instead of forming leaf mold.
  3. Add a natural source of nitrogen like cut grass or food scraps. Typically a ratio of 25:1 works well (i.e., 25 parts leaves to 1 part natural nitrogen). The nitrogen will help drive the composting process.
  4. Soak the mix to encourage it to break down, then cover with a tarp to maintain the moisture level.
  5. Turn the mix every couple of weeks or so to be sure that it is consistently decomposing.
  6. When you start to see rich, earthy material, the compost is ready to be added back into your soil. This transformation from leaves to compost can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year, depending on how carefully you tend to it.

Leaves on your lawn

It’s also possible to let leaves stay on your grass as long as you shred them like you would for mulch or composting. But this must be done in moderation. A thick, matted layer of leaves could cause the thatch to build up too thickly, which could give rise to other issues for your grass.

Another alternative is to compost the leaves then spread this compost across your lawn. If you do this, you should also aerate your lawn. Then you can rake the compost into the holes. This will help get the organic matter deeper into the soil, which will ultimately help feed your grass.

What is thatch?

Thatch is the layer of decomposing plant material between the soil and the green blades of your grass. It can include dead stems, leaves, and roots. A little bit of thatch can help high trafficked lawns be more resilient, but too much can cause it to be hydrophobic. Be mindful of how much thatch there already is before adding a layer of leaf mulch.

Whichever method you pick to use your leaves this Fall, skip the fertilizer, the leaf blowers, and the yard waste bags. Do yourself (and your trees) a favor and leave the leaves.

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