Leaves are a gift to the garden. They’re abundant in the fall, add rich organic matter to the soil, and are easy to get ahold of. Even if you don’t have a tree in your yard, you can still easily find a supply of them in your neighborhood. As mulch for your vegetable and flower garden, or an ingredient for your compost pile, leaves are pretty easy to work with.
However, there are a few mistakes that beginner gardeners sometimes make when using leaves, so use these quick tips to get off to a strong start.
Leaves are an excellent, easy-to-use mulch in the garden. For best results, shred the leaves with a string trimmer or lawnmower. Proper air circulation and water drainage through the leaf mulch will keep your plants healthy, and extra leaves make a plentiful supply of compost material.
Track down a supply of leaves in your yard or down the street, and get them in the garden!
1. Shred leaves for best performance as mulch
Take an extra step at the beginning of your leaf-using journey, and you will appreciate them all the more. Whole leaves can be used in the garden, but shredded leaves are much more versatile.
Shredded leaves break down much more quickly, so you can use them in a thicker layer since they drain water better and they don’t clump together so much if they get wet.
Use a lawnmower to shred
To make shredding and collection of the leaves super simple, just run your lawnmower over the area where you are collecting leaves, making sure to have the collection bag attached. As the bag fills up, dump the leaves directly in the garden beds or in the area you want to store them.
Use a cage and weed-wacker to shred
If you aren’t ready to use the leaves, you can make a very simple wire cage to store them in. Put a few T posts in a circle, then run field wire around the posts to make an enclosure. You can dump the mower collection bag in there, or you rake up the leaves whole and shred them in the cage.
To shred the leaves right in the cage, fill the cage to the top with leaves. Then use a string trimmer to cut up the leaves by dipping and moving the trimmer around. It’s kind of like using an immersion blender in a pot.
2. Leave space between plant stems and leaf mulch
There’s no need to snug leaves right up to plant stems as if you were tucking them in for the night. The better way to go about mulching the garden with leaves is to leave a ring of bare soil around each plant so that there is a gap of at least a few inches between the stem and mulch.
The gap will encourage air circulation and drainage around the plants after irrigation or rainfall. Allowing the plants to dry off after getting wet is vital to keeping your plants healthy.
Otherwise, you might see signs of mold or mildew on the plant stems. The last thing you want is beneficial leaf mulch to contribute to a weakened plant stem and poor growth.
3. Let water through the leaf mulch by using a thin layer
If you’re using whole leaves in the garden, keep the mulch layer to just a couple of inches. Wet leaves mat together and create a barrier, so too thick a layer would keep water from reaching the plant roots below.
A layer that’s just an inch or two thick will let the water percolate down to the soil below.
To be safe, check the soil occasionally to make sure it’s getting saturated. If you see your mulched plants wilting even with regular irrigation, it could be a sign that the leaf layer is too thick, so observe your garden and make adjustments accordingly.
If you want to use a thicker layer of mulch, then go with shredded leaves. There are many more nooks and crannies for water to trickle through, so there’s less concern about it not reaching the plant roots.
4. Prevent the leaves from blowing away
If you live in an area with lots of wind, then you know the struggle of keeping fresh mulch from blowing away.
Try one of these tactics to prevent your leaf mulch from blowing away:
- Cover the leaves with some lightweight landscape fabric. The fabric will help hold the leaves together and prevent them from scattering away.
- Use a combination of leaves and straw or hay to keep the mulch in place. The straw or hay will help hold the shredded leaves together, so they won’t be blown away by the wind as easily.
- Shred the leaves first and then spread them out. The small size of the shredded pieces will discourage blowing away. Get a few ideas of how to shred your leaves in the paragraph above.
5. Store any extra leaves for next season
If you happen to have extra leaves, hang on to them! They will come in handy next season when you’re scrounging for mulch or material for the compost bin.
It is easy to rake the leaves into a big pile and forget about them, but it is not the optimal way to store them. If left in a heap, the leaves will collect rainwater, mat together, inhibit breakdown, and possibly blow away during dry or windy spells.
Instead, wait until you have a few days without any rain in the forecast so the leaves will be dry when you rake them up. If you don’t have any dry weather in the forecast, then go ahead and collect them anyway. It’s better to have wet leaves than none at all.
Store in bags
Rake the fallen leaves into plastic garbage bags or paper lawn litter bags. Once they’re full, find a protected or semi-protected area to store the bags. Behind a garden shed, under the eaves of the garage, or in a nook of the garden are all out-of-the-way spots.
The goal is to keep the bags at least somewhat protected from winter wind and rain, so they’re not constantly soaked or shredded by strong winds.
Store in a cage
If using bags isn’t in line with your gardening style, then here’s an easy alternative: use a field wire cage to contain the leaves. With a few T posts and a circle of field or chicken wire, you can enclose the leaves and prevent them from blowing away through the off-season.
You can drape a tarp over the cage to keep the leaves dry or situate the cage under a tree where it will be more protected.
Once the following spring rolls around, you’ll have plenty of organic material to use for mulch and compost to get a jump start on your garden tasks.
If you want to diversify your mulch options but aren’t sure what to use, check out this post for a list of options: Best (Free!) Organic Mulches For The Home Garden.