Using fall leaves

Using fall leaves

Ken Johnson

Mulching is a beneficial practice that many gardeners use. Mulching around trees, in flowerbeds and even in vegetable gardens, helps retain moisture in the soil as well as reduce weed pressure. If you use organic mulches such as wood chips, these will slowly break down and increase the organic matter in your soils, as well. An alternative to using wood chips is leaves. So, this fall, rather than bagging or removing fallen leaves, think about using them in your yard.

The leaves your trees and shrubs shed in the fall represent a valuable natural resource. They can be used to provide a good source of organic matter and nutrients for use in your landscape. Leaves will contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients that a plant takes up during the season. By removing or burning these leaves we are in essence removing free fertilizer from our landscapes. Therefore, leaves should be managed and used rather than bagged or burned.

By adding a two-inch layer of leaf mulch around trees or in garden beds, approximately 150 pounds of nitrogen, 20 pounds of phosphorus and 65 pounds of potassium per acre will be added. Due to natural soil buffering and breakdown in most soil types, leaf mulch also has no significant effect on soil pH. Even oak leaves, which are acid (4.5 to 4.7 pH) when fresh, break down to be neutral to slightly alkaline.

There are four basic ways leaves can be managed and used in the landscape.

If you only have a light covering of leaves in your yard, you can just mow them up when cutting the grass. Simply leave the shredded leaves in place on the lawn. This technique is most effective when a mulching mower is used. During times of light leaf drop or if there are only a few small trees in your landscape, this technique is probably the most efficient and easiest way to manage leaf accumulation.

Mulching is another simple and effective way to recycle leaves. Leaves can be used as mulch in vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and around shrubs and trees. Leaves that have been mowed or run through some other type of shredder will decompose faster and are much more likely to remain in place than non-shredded leaves. Additionally, non-shredded leaves also tend to mat together, which can impede water and air infiltration. You can use a chipper/shredder/vacuum to pick up leaves.

Leaves can also be collected and worked directly into garden and flowerbed soils. A six- to eight-inch layer of leaves tilled into a heavy, clay soil will improve aeration and drainage. Moreover, the same amount tilled into a light, sandy soil will improve water and nutrient-holding capacity. If you decide to use leaves to improve soil in vegetable gardens and annual planting beds it’s best to collect and work them into the soil during the fall. This way there is sufficient time for the leaves to decompose prior to spring planting. Adding a little general purpose fertilizer to the soil after working in the leaves will also speed up their decomposition.

If you don’t like the look of leaves as mulch think about composting your leaves. Compost is a dark, crumbly, earth-smelling form of organic matter that has gone through a natural decomposition process. If you have a garden, lawn, trees, shrubs, or even planter boxes or houseplants, you have a use for compost. For additional information composting, visit the University of Illinois Extension Composting Central website at:

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