Feeling engulfed by an ever growing pile of fallen leaves? Leaf season can be overwhelming. Within hours after they are finally raked, blown, swept, sucked-up or otherwise removed from lawns, driveways, walkways, decks, patios and gardens, they return, begging for more raking, blowing, and sweeping. Children love playing in mounds of leaves. Most adults curse the perennial piles, but we shouldn’t.
Autumn leaves are future soil. Just think of what happens naturally in woodlands. Trees drop leaves onto the ground where they become shredded by wind and under hooves or paws of woodland creatures. Leaves become weighted by rains and flattened by snows. As they decay, leaves break into smaller pieces. At ground level they begin to turn into leaf mold – Mother Nature’s protective mulch for her forest floor. Worms, insects, and an incredible number of soil microorganisms work their magic on leaves in contact with the forest floor. Before autumn rolls around again on the calendar many of previous years’ fallen leaves are transformed into nutrient rich soil … all without human intervention.
It’s when humans get involved that complications arise. We plant gardens and lawns amongst trees, lawns and gardens we prefer not to have buried in mounds of leaves, then we curse trees for doing what comes naturally each autumn. It doesn’t make a lot of sense when a few planned steps will turn autumn’s fallen leaves into valuable soil amendments.
Mow leaves that fall on the lawn. Mowers, particularly those with mulching blades, chop leaves into small pieces that slowly decompose and provide nutrients to grass-growing soils. One of the best, low-cost, low-labor supplements you can give your lawn is it’s own clippings. When left to decompose between grass blades, these clippings help feed the soil. Chopped leaves do the same.
If your lawn is covered with too many leaves and you have a lawn mower with a bag attachment, use the mower to chop up extra leaf piles. The collected, bagged mix can be used immediately as mulch on planting beds or around mature trees, or can be piled into a temporary fenced circle. You can follow the steps in this Fine Gardening article to turn your fenced-in shredded leaf piles into leaf mold – another term for leaf compost. Not this ambitious? Then save shredded leaves in clean, unused trash barrels or fenced-in piles to use as garden mulch next spring or to cover vegetable scraps added to compost piles over the winter. No compost pile? See how to start a compost pile. Now is the perfect time to get one going.
If you must rake or blow leaves into adjacent woodlands try replicating nature. Make sure leaves are evenly spread out over a large area. Piles of un-shredded leaves will eventually decompose, but it takes a year or two. If you must pile leaves, pile choose a different spot each year. If your property has an area of disturbed or uncovered soil – exposed soil is damaged soil – cover the area with leaves and let nature rebuild the soil while you get on with your life.
In Connecticut, leaves are a mandatory recyclable item – they do not belong in the trash. CT’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) has about 100 registered leaf composting facilities to handle leaves that fall in areas that do not accommodate on-site composting.
If none of these solutions work for you find out if your town collects and actively composts leaves. Many towns now do so, then allow locals to use the composted result in gardens the following spring.
The bottom line: don’t let this free and rich source of garden and woodland nutrients go to waste. Nature provides the gift of leaves for us each autumn … we should use this gift wisely.