Few things are as satisfying as autumn leaves crunching beneath your feet.
Whether it's the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) "brain massage" or a flash of nostalgic longing for simpler times when jumping into a giant leaf pile was the height of fun, there is something delightful about the seasonal magic that autumn brings us.
However, there comes the point when the charm of the warm ambers, earthy browns, and spicy rust of autumn leaves gives way to the realities of raking and cleaning out gutters. As the blanket of leaf litter covers your lawn, it is time to start thinking of what to do with all those leaves.
“In most cases, leaving fall’s detritus in place won’t do your garden much harm,” according to Fine Gardening magazine. “But during a long, cold winter, that fluffy layer of colourful fallen leaves turns into a half-rotted brown mess, which knits itself together into a slippery, compacted, sodden mass that is immune to a leaf blower.”
If left unchecked, warns the gardening-centric periodical, you’ll be raking this mess out of every corner and crevice come next spring.
Raking leaves or utilizing a leaf blower to collect the autumn foliage is the obvious solution, but not all of the bounty needs to be carted away.
Described as fall’s most abundant crop by The Old Farmer’s Almanac, leaves are a rich source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
“The leaves of one large tree can be worth as much as $50 worth of plant food and humus,” according to the publication. “Pound for pound, leaves contain twice the mineral content of manure.”
Leaf humus, the end product of decomposing leaf material, has a nearly neutral pH that is loved by most plants. The crumbly organic material can lighten heavy clay soil, improve soil aeration and drainage, and encourages deeper root development. In sandy soil, the humus increases moisture retention and improves the soil’s ability to hold nutrients in the roots of plants.
“No organic gardener should pass up this annual opportunity,” The Almanac states of this free “gardener’s gold.”
Reduce time spent raking but mulching the leaves into the lawn.
“Leaf litter improves the soil, lessening the need for fertilizer in the spring,” according to The Almanac.
The Almanac recommends utilizing a mulching lawnmower with a three-inch-high blade once a week throughout autumn. This will help break leaves into tiny pieces that get pushed down into the soil to provide the lawn with nutrients throughout the winter.
“Leave leaf litter to feed worms, fungi, and soil bacteria,” advises The Almanac. “Just don’t leave thick layers of matted leaves on your lawn, as this blocks oxygen to the soil and invites disease.”
Mixing the shredded leaves into the garden can also help improve the soil.
“Next spring, your soil will be teeming with earthworms and other beneficial organisms,” according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Use your mower's grass catcher to bag the chopped leaves and either dig the leaves into the top few inches of soil, or spread them on top and work them in a bit with a fork or spade.
Adding slow-release nitrogen fertilizer is recommended to help the leaf decomposition and to prevent microbes from consuming all the available nitrogen.
Composting converts leaves into organic matter that enriches gardens by balancing soil density, adding nutrients, and encouraging the soil to retain them. It's also discouraging disease, pests, and weeds from emerging.
Pile your fallen leaves in an out-of-the-way area and encircle the pile with chicken wire to keep the material from blowing away.
Shredding the leaves with a mulching mower will speed up the composition process, but mulching isn’t a mandatory step.
Effective compost is comprised of wet, nitrogen-rich "green" material such as lawn clippings, dead plant matter, or kitchen scraps, as well as dry, carbon-rich "brown" material such as autumn leaves.
“Layer three or four inches of old leaves with an inch of fresh grass clippings or other green, leafy yard waste,” advises The Almanac. “Then let the compost sit all winter, turning the pile occasionally to aerate it.”
Come spring, add the compost to your garden soil.
If the pile appears dry, spray the compost with water and turn the material with a pitchfork.
Fall leaves can be stored in a dry trash can and added to the compost pile as more “green” material becomes available.
While mould may not sound like a good thing, it is an exceptional amendment to vegetable and flower gardens, according to The Almanac. Leaf mould is why a forest floor feels spongy when you walk on it and is responsible for the forest's earthy smell.
The crumbly, compost-like material produced when leaves are left to decompose improves soil structure and moisture retention, while also attracting beneficial organisms.
While leaf mould takes anywhere from six months to three years to form, making the mould is as easy as raking leaves into a pile and keeping them moist to encourage fungi growth. Shredding the leaves will speed up the process, and storing the leaves in a wood or wire bin (or even a trash bag with air holes cut out) will help contain the pile.
The leaves will eventually disintegrate into a “dark, sweet-smelling, soil conditioner that is high in calcium and magnesium and retains water,” according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Mulch prevents the soil from washing away during the winter and acts as an insulating cover.
“Leaves make an excellent protective mulch for vegetable crops, blueberries (and other berries), and ornamental shrubs,” according to The Almanac. “They not only suppress weeds and help retain soil moisture, but because they contain no weed seeds themselves, they won’t encourage the spread of new weeds.”
Simply shred the leaves with a mulching mower and place them in garden beds and around shrubs or tree trunks. Shredding is key in mulching, as whole leaves can form a solid mat, which water and air cannot penetrate.
To prevent the leaves from blowing away, hose them down after spreading them in the garden beds.
Utilizing the natural benefits of fallen leaves not only benefits your garden, but also keeps countless plastic garbage bags filled with the material out of landfills.