Fall leaves

Feeding your garden soil: 12 creative ways to use fall leaves

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I could waste your time and wax poetic about the joys of autumn in the garden. I could talk about the lovely colors, the cooler temperatures, and the fall harvest. I could tell you how thankful I am for such a successful gardening season. I could go on and on about what a beautiful time of year it is. But I’m not going to, because – let’s talk frankly here – fall can be a gigantic pain in the butt. Especially when it comes to finding a use for all the leaves you’re raking. But, by using the following inspiring ideas, those leaves can be put to work feeding your garden soil in some pretty creative ways.

The leaves are dropping in earnest now, and while my post last week offered you 6 reasons to NOT clean up your garden this fall, I didn’t discuss what to do with all the leaves that collect on the lawn. Raking is one of my least favorite garden chores (and it IS a chore!), and while you don’t have to rake every last leaf out of your perennial beds (nor should you; again, see last week’s post for some of the reasons why), you do have to get the bulk of the leaves off the lawn. If you don’t, you’ll end up with bald spots and brown, matted grass come spring.

So, to help limit the pain-in-the-butt factor, reduce the volume of fall leaves we homeowners send to the landfill every year, and give you plenty of ideas for feeding your garden soil, I offer you this handy list.

12 creative ways of feeding your garden soil that use fall leaves

1. Build a potato bin: In a previous post, I outlined a great way to grow a lot of potatoes in a very small space. Essentially, you build a cylindrical wire frame, line it with newspaper, fill it with a blend of organic matter and compost, and plant seed potatoes in it. The leaves you rake up this fall are the perfect foundation to such a bin; in fact, this is one of my favorite ways to use fall leaves. Build the wire frames right now, put them in place, and begin to fill them with leaves. Come spring, the leaves will be partially decomposed; you can toss in some compost, mix it up, and – viola! – instant potato-growing bin! Then, after the potatoes are harvested next summer, all those well-rotted leaves and compost are great for feeding your garden soil.

feeding your garden soil by building a potato bin

This easy-to-make potato bin can be partially filled with autumn leaves.

2. Mulch your roses: Many roses, grafted hybrid teas in particular, require a bit of extra protection from cold winter temperatures. Cover the base of the plant with a mound of leaves to shield the graft union from frosty temps. For many years, I purchased straw or peat moss to build these protective mounds, but then I got smart and switched to using leaves instead. Though I wouldn’t suggest mounding unshredded leaves around perennials as they can form a dense mat and cause the plant to rot, the roses don’t seem to mind it one bit, as long as I remember to pull the mulch off by early April.

3. Make pumpkin and squash rings: This is one of my favorite – and most clever – tricks for utilizing the leaves I collect off my lawn every fall. I have several rings of twelve-inch-high chicken wire; each ring is about three to four feet in diameter. I lay these hoops in the garden each fall, positioning them wherever I plan to grow my pumpkin and winter squash next season. Once in place, I fill the rings with leaves all the way to the top, then I throw a few shovels full of soil on the top to keep the leaves from blowing away. In the spring, the leaves are partially decomposed and have settled a bit. I fill the rings to the top with a mixture of compost and one-year-old horse manure from the neighbor. I stir it all up with a pitch fork and plant three to five pumpkin or squash seeds per ring. Works like a charm. When I’m done harvesting the pumpkins later in the year, I spread the decomposed leaves and manure around the garden; it’s just another great way of feeding your garden soil!

4. Feed your lawn: You might not think of making lawn fertilizer as one of the ways to use fall leaves, but the easiest way to handle fall leaves is to not handle them at all. Instead of raking them up, use your lawnmower to chop your leaves into tiny bits. It might take two or three passes, but the leaves will be blasted into smithereens in short order. The mower scatters these small leaf fragments across the lawn and prevents them from forming a dense mat. Because they are so small, they’ll quickly decompose, feeding the microbes and eventually the lawn. It’s a win-win for you and your lawn.

5. Make free mulch: Autumn leaves are rich in many macro- and micronutrients, as well as various trace elements. Use them as a mulch to not only add these nutrients to the soil as the leaves decompose, but also to cut down on weeds and stabilize soil temperatures. To use them as a mulch, shred the leaves first. I put the collection bag on my lawnmower and run them over. When the bag is full, I dump the leaf fragments right on the vegetable garden. You can also put the leaves in a 30- or 55-gallon plastic trash can and plunge your string trimmer into the can of leaves. Move the string trimmer around a little, and before you know it, you’ll have half a plastic trash can full of shredded leaves. Dump it in the garden and repeat the process until all your veggie beds are mulched. If you do this every autumn, you’ll be feeding your garden soil a diet rich in organic matter and a plethora of nutrients.

Related post: A simple mulch = easy winter harvests

6. Set up a worm bin: Here’s a simple, step-by-step plan for making a worm composting bin. You’ll notice the plan uses shredded newspaper as bedding for the worms, but this time of year, you can start a worm bin by using dry leaves in place of, or in combination with, shredded newspaper. Happy worms = lots of worm castings = happy plants.

7. Put them “on hold” until spring: One of the easiest ways to use fall leaves is to make one of my favorite mulches for my tomato patch. It’s the combination of newspaper covered with last year’s leaves. Before planting my tomatoes, I cover the entire garden area with a layer of newspaper, ten sheets thick. Then, I cover the newspaper with last year’s leaves. When I’m ready to plant, I cut a small X through the newspaper where I want to position each of my tomatoes and plant right through it. The mulch helps suppress soil-borne pathogens, and cuts down on watering and weeding. I pile some of my leaves in a mound next to my compost bin every fall to use specifically for this purpose.

Feeding your garden soil with fall leaves

Newspapers, topped with last year’s leaves, make a great mulch for the tomato patch.

8. Mulch the asparagus bed: Since my asparagus patch is separate from my vegetable garden, it often gets ignored. But, I find that if I mulch it with shredded leaves every autumn, I have far less competition from weeds during the growing season and I don’t ever have to water it. I spread a two-inch layer of shredded leaves over the bed after we get a few hard frosts. I also cut down the old fronds at that time and toss them onto the compost pile. As the shredded leave decompose over time, they’re constantly feeding your garden soil by slowly releasing organic matter and nutrients into the earth.

9. Ready your raspberries: Black and red raspberries thrive when mulched with a two-inch layer of shredded leaves every autumn. The leaves add essential organic matter and nutrients to the soil as they decompose, and they help reduce competition from weeds. I prune my raspberries in the spring, so spreading the shredded leaves across the raspberry patch can be a bit of a struggle in the tall canes. I wear long pants, long sleeves, safety goggles, and gloves for this job. I use a pitchfork to scoop the leaf fragments out of our tractor cart and toss them around the bed. In “lazy years,” I’ve neglected to shred the leaves before tossing them into the raspberry patch. That seems to work just fine, too, as long as you don’t add so many leaves that you end up smothering the new, emerging shoots in the spring.

10. Make leaf mold: My local landscape supply yard charges $38.00, plus delivery, for a cubic yard of leaf mold. Know what leaf mold is? It’s decomposed leaves. Guess what? You can make it for free. This is one of the easiest ways to use fall leaves for feeding your garden soil. Just pile your leaves off in the woods or at the edge of your property somewhere and wait. Eventually, they’ll decompose into the same lovely, rich, crumbly leaf mold some chump pays $38.00 a cubic yard for. Yes, they’ll decompose faster if you chop them up first, but it isn’t necessary.

11. Build a new garden: Some folks call it lasagna gardening, others call it sheet composting or layer gardening. Semantics aside, the method involves piling layers of organic matter on top of the soil, waiting for it to break down, and then planting a new garden in it. It’s a great way to make a new bed without having to rent a sod stripper or bust out the rototiller. Autumn leaves make great sheet composting material, and it’s one of the best ways to use fall leaves. Alternate them with layers of manure, untreated grass clippings, shredded newspaper, cardboard, straw, kitchen scraps, compost, and other organic matter this fall, and you’ll have a new, ready-to-plant garden when spring arrives.

12. Save ’em for later: And one of the final ways to use fall leaves is to put them “in the bank.” And by “in the bank,” I mean “in garbage bags.” I always keep a few black plastic trash bags full of dry autumn leaves next to my compost pile. Come summer, when I have a ton of nitrogen-rich green materials and a shortage of carbon-rich brown stuff, I can just reach into one of the bags and pull out a few handfuls of leaves to add to the pile. Ideally, according to this science-based compost plan, your compost pile should have three parts carbon-rich brown material for one part nitrogen-rich green material (by volume). So, for every gallon bucket of kitchen scraps and grass clippings you toss into the pile, you should have three gallon buckets of fall leaves or straw to cover it with. It balances the finished product and keeps it decomposing at a decent clip. And, all gardeners already know how good the resulting compost will be at feeding your garden soil – it’s the tops!

Related post: A simple compost how to guide where science reigns supreme

Do you have any other clever ways to use your fall leaves? Tell us about them in the comment section below. 

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7 Responses to Feeding your garden soil: 12 creative ways to use fall leaves

  1. JessB says:

    Great ideas. I can’t get enough leaves for all the stuff I want to use them for so I rake the local museum’s yard, the courthouse’s yard, anywhere that I can rake without getting in trouble for trespassing! It’s a public service, right?? LOL

  2. Barbara says:

    Thanks for the great ideas. I already do most of them but did learn a few new ones.

  3. Sasha T. says:

    I’ve been a leaf freak for years. I’ve finally found a great (easy!) way to get my leaf on! I’ve connected with a couple neighborhood landscapers & they now deliver their leaves to a pile in my yard. I then chop them up with my mulcher mower & fill up my numerous black plastic compost bins (many of which I’ve gotten for free off the curb because people apparently don’t know what to do with them).
    By the end of leaf season, I’ve harvested a LOT of carbon & have plenty to last through the summer months.

    • Great idea, Sasha! And, I’m sure the landscapers are happy to find someone willing to take the leaves so they don’t have to pay any dump fees. Thanks for the great tip!

  4. Denise Cummings says:

    I go around and collect a few orange bags sitting on the curb of peoples homes. I then dump them out in lines and run the lawn tractor over them. Natural food for my flower beds.

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