Some folks have so many leaves that I see them by the bagful lined up on the side of the road ready for trash pickup. Some of those bags never make it to the landfill. I pull up next to the curb, make my kid get out, and she places the bag in our vehicle. We just scored free mulch, compost, soil amendment … however you want to look at it.
Have you ever walked around in the woods and noticed that nice, rich organic soil exploding with earthworms? In these undisturbed woodland areas, vegetation is left to decay, enriching the soil. It is very fertile, formed by letting nature take its course. The black gold you see is humus. Humus is highly decomposed organic matter. The organic matter coming from the fallen leaves, decomposed limbs of trees, even dead animals … almost anything that was once living in the woods. This is the type of soil that we desire in our own gardens and landscapes. Humus is full of beneficial microbes that are constantly breaking down organic matter and creating healthy soils.
It’s obvious that we usually do not find this type of soil in our own home landscapes and vegetable gardens. The reason is simple: We don’t let nature take its course. We are constantly planting, tilling, transplanting, mowing, edging, raking … you get my drift.
Back to the leaves. Leaves can be used as an organic mulch around your shrubs and in your vegetable gardens. We all know the benefits of mulch. Mulch conserves moisture in the soil, moderates soil temperatures and does a great job of suppressing weeds. Dead leaves are a great mulch. They may not be the most aesthetic, but they do break down, giving back to the soil. Leaves make a more uniform mulch that breaks down quicker when they have been shredded or chopped. Shredding or chopping leaves also reduces the volume to as little as one-tenth rather quickly.
If you are not in need of mulch at the moment, the leaves can be turned into compost. Remember that compost bins rely on carbon and nitrogen together to effectively complete the process of composting. The ratio to remember is 30:1. That is 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, or 30 parts brown to one part green. Dead leaves are brown; fresh grass clippings are green. If you have no green to add to the pile now, a cup of nitrogen fertilizer ought to do it. Add a shovelful of finished compost if you can to get it going. Don’t forget to turn. Over time, those leaves will reward you with nice compost to add to your soils.
One of the biggest questions asked in the fall pertaining to leaves has to do with the lawn. Some people reseed their lawn with cool season grasses in the fall. It is true that having a deep pile of leaves on an actively growing lawn, like fescue, can shade the grass, especially when the leaves are deep. The simple solution is to mow over the leaves.
Mulching the leaves and allowing them to sit on the lawn will not hurt the grass. For grasses that are dormant, leaving the leaves does not pose a problem, but if it makes you feel better to mow over them, then go ahead. If you do not like the look of the leaves and you do want to rake or bag them, use them as mulch or in the compost pile.
And if the idea of mulching or composting the leaves doesn’t appeal to you, leave them by the curb and some lucky someone may just stop and pick them up.