What to Do with All Those Leaves?
Connie Kotke, Master Gardener
Did you know that the trees in one acre of forest shed as much as two tons of leaves each fall? Your neighborhood may not have that many trees, but even a little bit of raking is hard on the back . . . and it’s no fun for anyone but the kids who jump in the piles! It doesn’t make sense to bag or compost your leaves. Instead, turn them into a valuable natural resource that delivers organic matter and nutrients to your landscape.
Did you know that the trees in one acre of forest shed as much as two tons of leaves each fall? Your neighborhood may not have that many trees, but even a little bit of raking is hard on the back . . .and it’s no fun for anyone but the kids who jump in the piles! It doesn’t make sense to bag or compost your leaves. Instead, turn them into a valuable natural resource that delivers organic matter and nutrients to your landscape.
Managing Leaves in Your Yard
In a forest, tree leaves and other organics form a natural carpet over the soil surface. This conserves moisture, controls temperatures and prevents the soil from eroding. Over time bacteria, fungi and other natural organisms decompose or compost the leaves to supply plants with a natural, slow-release form of nutrients. Consider capturing these same benefits for your own landscapes.
Leaves contain up to 80 percent of the nutrients a tree captures from the soil and air during its growing season! Rather than bagging leaves and placing them at the curb to be hauled to landfills or compost sites, you can:
A light covering of leaves can be mowed; simply leave the shredded leaves in place on the lawn. This technique is most effective when a mulching mower is used. In fact, when leaf drop is light—or you have only a few small trees in your yard--this technique is the most efficient way to manage leaf accumulation.
Use Them For Mulch
Leaves can be used as a mulch in vegetable gardens, flower beds and around shrubs and trees. As an option to raking, a lawn mower with a bagging attachment provides a fast and easy way to shred and collect the leaves. Leaves that have been mowed or run through some other type of shredder will decompose faster and are much more likely to remain in place than unshredded leaves.
Apply a 3 to 6 inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs. In annual and perennial flower beds, a 2 to 3 inch mulch of shredded leaves is ideal. Mulches are especially beneficial when used around newly established landscape plants, greatly increasing the likelihood of their survival.
You can even begin to establish a no-till vegetable garden in late fall by heaping 8 to 10 inches of leaves on a defined bed area in a sunny spot in your yard. A heavy layer not only keeps weeds from growing, it also keeps the underlying soil moist, greatly reducing the amount of watering you need in the summer.
Improve Your Soil
Work leaves directly into your garden and flower bed soils now so they decompose by spring. A 6 to 8 inch layer of leaves tilled into heavy, clay soil will improve aeration and drainage. Tilling into a light, sandy soil, will improve capacity to hold water and nutrients.
But remember, almost all trees and shrubs are susceptible to one or more leaf spot diseases. Fallen leaves that are diseased can harbor plant pathogens over the winter and reinfect the following growing season. These leaves should be raked up and destroyed before the first snowfall.
For more information, check out these University of Minnesota resources:
Should I Mulch or Bag My Leaves? - Should I mulch? Or bag my leaves this fall? (umn.edu)
Freeze Dried Leaves on Trees - Freeze-dried leaves on trees caused by early cold temperatures | UMN Extension
Photo credits: Connie Kotke (1, 2, 3)