It’s your friendly leaf goblin, showing up as I do at this time every fall. The leaves are finally starting to fall, which means that wonderful activity, leaf pick-up, is here. Instead of looking at them as a nuisance, why not think of them as gold for the garden? I’m going to try to convince you to change leaf pick-up into “leaf recovery.”
Attitude change about beauty
It means a mind shift from wanting everything to look pristine to a less tidy appearance. Why is it that when we see leaves blanketing a bed instead of commercially shredded mulch, it looks messy to us? Both are organic matter, and the leaves are actually much more colorful than shredded bark.
Leaves = Nutrients
The leaves that turn lovely hues and then drop are nature’s source for replenishing the soil beneath trees and shrubs. A plant takes up massive amounts of nutrients through its roots as it grows to use in food production for its healthy leaves. When the plant sheds its leaves, those nutrients are released back into the soil as the leaves decay. These nutrients are waiting to be used by the plant next season to produce leaves, stems and fruits.
So, taking away the leaves simply takes away nutrients. We can add nutrients by fertilizing, of course, but for the most part, synthetic fertilizers do nothing for the soil, and certainly make a dent in the wallet.
What do I do with them?
So, can you simply leave them where they fall? And exactly how do you use these leaves that are so plentiful?
For the leaves covering your grass, think of the prairie’s cycle. Prairies don’t usually have trees, so there are few leaves. The organic matter from a prairie cycle comes from the grass itself. So, it is a good idea to clean up the leaves on your grass in order to keep the grass healthy and free from disease.
On the grass
Simply mow the grass and leaves together and blow it all in your landscape beds. This is not a hard job, but may take some creative driving or pushing to round them up into beds. If your mower is a mulcher, take out the mulching chute cover so you can blow and direct the leaves as you would into a bagger. If you don’t have that capacity, you can simply mow over them a couple of times and they will be ground finely enough to leave in place.
In the beds
As for landscape beds, take a walk in the woods and you will see blankets of leaves covering the ground beneath trees. This cycle of leaf fall and decay maintains the soil health and this, in turn, allows the trees to grow and remain healthy. We can easily duplicate that cycle by simply not taking the leaves away.
You can leave them whole where they fall and eventually they will begin to break down into the fine humus that is so good for plants. Or you can shred them with the mower and blow them into the beds. You will have ready mulch every year without the back-breaking work of adding wood mulch to your beds.
Make winter beds for pollinators
Keep in mind that native bees nest in the ground, and bumblebees burrow into leaf litter to spend the winter. Leaf litter also protects countless types of butterfly pupa such as black swallowtails and fritillaries.
Make a leaf pile for later use
I have a lot of leaves, so after I fill my beds, I scoop all the extra into a pile at the back of my property and let them sit there over winter. Next spring I can dig into the bottom of the pile for some of the most beautiful shredded mulch to go directly on my vegetable garden instead of straw.
After a couple of years, my leaf pile will be reduced by half and will be composted beautifully for use all over the landscape. The British have been doing this for years – they are famous for their leaf “mould” which they use in the garden and even in containers. Best of all, it’s free!