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Environmental Horticulture (Gardening)

Uses for Leaves

If you're lucky enough to have large trees adorning your property to provide cooling shade through the summer, you may consider yourself less fortunate in the fall, with all those leaves to be raked, bagged, and carted to the local landfill.

This year, try a different strategy. Instead of turning those leaves into garbage, turn them into a beneficial soil amendment for next year's flower and vegetable beds. Autumn leaves can be added to the home compost pile or used as mulch.

A compost pile need not take up a large part of your lawn or garden. Nor does a properly maintained compost pile have offensive odors. To contain the compost, use a 3-sided or 4-sided structure made of wood or wire meshing. Add any vegetable matter to it, such as kitchen discards and the autumn leaves. It's a good idea to add an occasional layer of soil and some ground limestone to aid the decomposition process. Turn the compost occasionally. By next gardening season, you'll have rich, dark compost that makes an excellent amendment to soil.

Selection of manufactured compost bins.

If you need only a small amount of compost, you can use a plastic trash bag to compost relatively fine material such as shredded leaves, lawn clippings, or chopped garden refuse. Make layers as in a compost pile, or mix all materials together. Add 2 quarts of water to dry material (1 quart if it is quite moist or succulent). Tie the bag and turn it over monthly to aerate the material and distribute the moisture.

A lawn mower can be used to shred leaves. Pile the leaves a few inches high and go over them several times with the mower. Shred leaves when they are dry, to prevent blades from clogging. Shredded leaves are great to incorporate with other materials for compost making, but less effective for mulching purposes as they decompose too quickly.

Can you compost or mulch with leaves that carry disease or insects? The answer is a qualified yes. Diseased or insect-infested leaves should be used as a mulch for flowers or shrubs, not other trees. This way, even if the leaves carry disease, they won't damage other trees. If the leaves seem very infected, it may be wiser to compost them, since this can destroy many harmful organisms.

Other Valuable Uses For Leaves:

  • In the fall, collect leaves in bins or large piles. In spring, dig into the pile to get the matted clumps of partially decomposed leaves. Use as a mulch to keep moisture and nutrients accessible to the plant.
  • Fill the paths between raised beds now, for fewer weeds next spring.
  • Till into the soil in fall to break down by spring.
  • Fill bags with leaves and use as insulation for cold frames.
  • Use as a winter mulch on bare ground to reduce erosion.

Leaves are an excellent source of organic matter and other nutrients. The more you can add to a compost pile or use as a mulch, the less goes into an already over-used landfill. Mulching can also make the soil more workable, aid rainwater penetration, and improve moisture retention near plant roots.