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Eight Ways To Love Fall Leaves

By: Sandra Nelson

When we left ten days ago, our lawn looked like this:

house in fall

When we came back, this was what our lawn looked like:  

house with leaves

and this was the neighbor’s:

bags of leaves by sidewalk  After six years I still can’t convince him that there are much better ways to get rid of fall leaves than sending them to the dump in black plastic bags. 


In many neighborhoods across the country, leaves are a severely unvalued resource. Leaves that fall from one large tree, when handled appropriately, equal the value of that $50 bag of fertilizer you have been buying from the local big box store!  pallet of fertilizer After spending the growing season pulling nutrients from the soil, all those fall leaves on the ground have a high mineral content. Each one contains essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen and carbon, as well as a plethora of micronutrients and trace elements. They are, quite literally, a gold mine for the landscape.

In addition to their nutrient value, fall leaves can provide you a multitude of other benefits. They can be used to help break down heavy clay soils. They can nourish hardworking earthworms or  provide winter warmth to native insects seeking safe shelter. They can help dry, sandy soils hold moisture or can act as a layer of insulation for tender perennials. For anyone with a creative flair, fallen leaves can be used to make beautiful autumn decor.


So, rather than consign those leaves to years in the local landfill, try one of these earth-friendly solutions instead.



  • Mow Them Into Your Lawn

mowing leavesTwenty years of research at Michigan State University has consistently shown that mowing leaves into turf in the fall results in a healthier –  and more attractive  –   lawn next spring. Lawns that have been “mulched” with mowed leaves require less fertilizer to green-up in the spring and initially sprout fewer weeds. One study showed a 100% decrease in both crabgrass and dandelions after three years of fall leaf mulching. The decomposing leaves help to cover bare spots, preventing germination of weed seeds.

Try mowing once a week throughout the fall, setting your mower blade 3 inches high. This will break the leaves into smaller pieces. While a layer of chopped leaves will seem to sit on the surface of the turf, eventually the fragments will filter down to the soil surface where they will continue to add nutrients throughout the winter. 


  • Add Them To Your Compost Pile

leaves in composter

Autumn leaves are the foundation of a rich compost. Fallen leaves are the carbon-rich “brown” base of a healthy compost mix. Grass clippings, dead plants and kitchen scraps are the “green” layer that feeds the bacteria which breaks down the leaves. Left in place to decompose throughout the winter, you will be rewarded with a rich compost for your garden in the spring.

For those who are new to composting, seek out articles from your local extension service. They have information tailored for the conditions in your particular area.


  • Make Leaf Mold

leaf mold

Normally, homeowners shy away from intentionally making mold. Making leaf mold however, is an entirely different story! Leaf mold is especially high in calcium and magnesium, both of which are necessary for plant growth. Calcium, for example, helps to keep cell walls upright. (Small, shriveled leaves on plants could signal a calcium deficiency) Magnesium is necessary for photosynthesis and helps move sugars and starches throughout plant stems.

Making leaf mold is essentially composting, but without adding the “green” layer. Simply pile leaves, either shredded or whole, into a pile and let them sit undisturbed for a year or more. If the winter is especially dry, occasionally sprinkle the pile with water. Eventually you will have an excellent, safe to use soil conditioner. The best part is that it costs you nothing but a little effort and some time.


  • Use Them As Mulch

rose mulched with leaves

Think of fallen leaves as free mulch. Once shredded, they can be used to form a protective barrier for tender perennials, vegetable crops and ornamental shrubs. They help keep moisture in the soil and since they don’t have seeds, leaves don’t encourage weeds to sprout.  A three or four inch pile of shredded leaves around the base of tender plants is ideal, but avoid using piles of unshredded leaves as mulch; whole leaves can mat together and prevent water from seeping through to the soil. If you are intending to use leaf mulch as insulation during the winter months, it’s better to wait until the ground has frozen to apply your leaf mulch.


  • Give Wildlife A Bed

bug in leavesWhat appears to be just a pile of dead leaves along your fence line is most likely a wildlife hotel filled with dozing wildlife. Dozens of native pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths seek winter shelter in fallen leaves. Queen bumblebees can only burrow about two inches into the ground to hibernate, so a layer of insulting leaves helps keep her safe until spring. Chrysalises of native butterflies and moths disguised as dry, fallen leaves can be hidden in a leaf pile, waiting to emerge in the spring. Finding a spot in your yard where a pile of leaves can remain undisturbed all year round helps a wildlife rich habitat to develop and thrive.


  • Improve Your Soil

poor soil

If you have heavy clay soil, tilling in shredded leaves can help improve the soil’s structure. The shredded leaves create tiny gaps in the soil to appear, allowing air, water and nutrients into the dense soil structure. Over time, the soil can become more workable. On the other end of the spectrum, shredded leaves added to very dry or sandy soil act as a binding agent that helps to hold loose particles together.  With a tighter soil structure, water particles remain in the soil instead of rushing through. Tilling shredded leaves into garden soil can replace lost nutrients, but be careful not to overdo. Adding too many leaves can actually cause a nitrogen deficiency in your soil. The microorganisms in the soil that break down the added leaves use nitrogen in the decomposition process. (Because of their inherent toxicity, avoid tilling shredded walnut leaves into garden areas. Researchers at Ohio State University have found that after six or more months, the leaves of walnut trees are no longer toxic and are fine for composting or using as mulch.)


  • Become An Artist

vase of leaves Bring the striking colors of fall leaves indoors. While pressed leaves often lose their rich hues, preserving leaves in a glycerin bath keeps them bright and supple. Mix one part glycerin with two parts warm water. Stir well, then pour into a container that will accommodate fully submerged leaves. Place leaves in a single layer in the container and weigh them down to keep them entirely under the glycerin-water solution. Within a few days, anywhere from 2 to 6, the leaves will be in perfect condition to use in arrangements. 


Entire branches can also be glcerized. Split the stem of a branch about 18 inches long. Take off any bottom leaves and immerse the bottom of the branch in a glycerin/water mixture. Check the solution daily and add more as the branch absorbs the liquid. Depending on the plant species, the process can take from 1 to 3 weeks to complete..

  • Make Some Memories

children in leaves

There’s nothing more inviting to kids on a crisp fall day than jumping into and thrashing about in a huge pile of just raked leaves. Join in their fun, and if your town allows it, enjoy roasted marshmallows over a late afternoon bonfire. They’ll never forget it – and neither will you.