Leaf Mulch: Nature's Gift to Gardeners

by Chris Lambton

Most people dread the constant raking of leaves that fall brings, but I actually relish it. More than anything, I welcome that the fallen leaves that blanket my lawn and garden are just about as important to cultivating healthy soil as a soaking rain is.

Leaf Mulch: Nature's Gift to Gardeners

Using leaf mulch is an organic, inexpensive, nutrient-rich way to make sure your plants will grow and produce year after year. Fall is in the air; the leaves are on the ground, and I couldn't be happier.

To be clear, I don't enjoy the work of raking leaves any more than you do. However, I do have a solid appreciation for what leaves add to my garden and landscape just a few months after they fall. Where most people see leaf debris as trash, along with hours of raking or blowing, bagging and hauling, I see garden beds covered in rich, organic compost.

Nature knows what it's doing. In fact, did you know that leaves contain 50 to 80% of the nutrients that are extracted from the earth by tree roots? Recycling this precious resource to replenish soil will nourish all that is planted in it. If you're already gathering them up anyway, doesn't using leaves as mulch make perfect sense?

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What is Leaf Mulch?

Leaf mulch is simply leaves used as an organic mulch that covers your top soil. If you take a walk in the woods, you'll notice that Mother Nature uses leaves to mulch the ground underneath shrubs and trees naturally. This layer of leaves performs several key functions:

  • Stops the growth of weeds around the base of plants
  • Helps maintain soil moisture by reducing surface evaporation
  • Keeps soil temperatures consistent
  • Prevents soil erosion and crusting
  • Adds valuable nutrients
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Leaf mulch in action

The shredded the leaves I apply around my garden beds quickly go through a transformation into organic matter that promotes the life of soil-dwelling organisms. I know earthworms will feast on my leaf mulch and then burrow deep into the soil to increase nutrients and encourage drainage. Beneficial fungi and bacteria begin working to decompose the organic matter, creating a nutrient-rich fertilizer for plant and tree roots. And what makes using leaves as mulch really amazing is that, no matter what condition your soil is in to begin with, mulching with leaves eventually results in a well-draining, moist garden soil. When I use leaf mulch for vegetable garden beds, I rest easy, knowing I'm not introducing weed seeds into my precious garden area.

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What is leaf mold?

You can take it a step further and transform your leaves into leaf mold. Leaf mold is leaf mulch that has already begun the process of breaking down. One of the easiest ways to create leaf mold is to designate an area of your yard as a leaf pile. Pile your shredded leaves in this area and cover with a plastic tarp to maintain moisture.

I like to use a Fiskars® garden fork to turn my leaves on a regular basis to keep them breaking down uniformly. I've found the welded steel construction of this garden fork is more durable than wood and allows me to really dig deep and work quickly. Whole leaves can take up to three years to break down into leaf mold, but shredded ones can be ready in as little as six months. Work your finished leaf mold into your garden to increase the drainage and moisture levels in your flower and vegetable beds.

Composting leaves

Leaves are also a wonderful addition for compost piles. The Eco Bin 75-Gallon Compost Bin is big enough to add freshly fallen leaves or leaves from your leaf mold pile to fulfill your compost mix carbon requirement. I like to use five parts leaves to two parts grass clippings. Frequent turning gives your compost pile plenty of oxygen for uniform decomposition.

Tips for turning leaves into mulch

How to mulch leaves isn't a difficult task – the trees take care of the hard part. You may be wondering: Can leaves be used as mulch just as they are? Depending on the type of leaf, you can often simply rake up whole leaves around the bases of your trees and shrubs for mulch and insulation. Three inches of leaf mulch works well for most traditional mulching applications.

Tip #1

Benefits of shredding leaves

But shredding leaves to make leaf litter helps them break down easier, looks nicer and gives you the ability to easily work them into the soil in the spring. The smaller the shredded leaf mulch, the easier it is for the leaves to break down. This prevents the leaves from forming a big, moldy mat on the top of the soil.

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Tip #2

Recommended tools to mulch leaves

Mulching leaves with lawn mower attachments is probably the easiest way to create nicely shredded leaf litter. The key is to make sure you have turned your leaf pile, so your leaves are nice and dry. Wet leaves do not shred well. You'll also want to remove and sticks in the pile so as to protect your lawn mower. I used a Fiskars® Reel mower and Grass catcher to slice up my leaves and catch them after going through the mower.

Tip #3

Take it slow.

To spread your leaves in a thick layer and turn leaves into mulch using your lawn mower, you want to go nice and slow. I like to do a few passes to achieve an even texture. Once the leaves have been shredded, use a Fiskars® shovel to add into a garden bag for transport to a vegetable or flower bed. To move mulch to final location, use a Fiskars® D-handle shovel.

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Tip #4

Leaf mulching is a sustainable practice.

As much as I relish this gift of nature for my garden, I also take pride in knowing recycling leaves into shredded leaf mulch is good environmental stewardship. By keeping leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste at home, we significantly reduce landfill volume. Now that you know how to make leaf mulch, you can save time, stop spending money on packaged mulch and reduce the need for supplemental fertilizers. All in all – leaf mulching is just good gardening.

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Is Mulching Leaves Good for Your Lawn?

If you're looking to get out of your weekend raking, I might have a solution for you. While leaving a heavy layer of wet, thick leaves on your lawn is certainly not good for your grass, mulching leaves into lawn grass is actually a great way to achieve a low maintenance and beautiful yard. Using leaves as mulch on your lawn:

  • Feeds your soil with organic matter and rich nutrients
  • Adds organic matter to maintain and absorb moisture
  • Aerates the soil for easy spring seed germination
  • Keeps leaf piles from washing into drains and ditches
  • Reuses a free resource in an environmentally-friendly way
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Many mowers feature a mulch setting for easily mulching leaves into grass. All you need to do is insert the mulch plug and close the side port. Older mowers can be retrofitted with a mulch kit. Slowly mow over your dried leaves to create a fine mulch. Depending on your leaves, you may need to repeat the process several times. The goal is to create a fine leaf mulch that's hardly noticeable on your lawn.