For many of us, autumn brings a stark change in the hue of our landscapes, from green to a broad array of yellows, oranges, reds and browns. While that virtual kaleidoscope begins in the canopies of trees, it can rapidly find its way to the surface of our yards as leaves.
Leaving them where they lay can have a detrimental effect on your lawn. They block the sunlight your grass needs for nourishment, and can create a boggy environment that attracts disease. That’s why most of us break out the rake come autumn. But fallen leaves need not be a thankless chore. The following are five ways you can convert them into resources for making your landscape better.
Most household compost bins are stocked primarily with leaves. They’re relatively quick to decompose into a fertile mulch that can then be added back into your garden or landscape. Most leaves are composed of between 20 and 30 parts carbon to every part nitrogen, putting them close to the ideal ratio for composting. That’s why, if you’ve been thinking about starting a compost bin, autumn is a prime time to start.
2. Leaf mold
Similar to compost, leaf mold is useful primarily as a kind of mulch. Unlike most compost, though, leaf mold is made by a cold process involving fungi, rather than a hot one involving bacteria.
The most efficient way is to shred the leaves, either with a leaf shredder or by mowing over them, then bag them up in sturdy garbage bags for a year or so. Many leaf blowers can also be used to vacuum up leaves for shredding. Be sure to moisten the leaves a bit before bagging them, and poke a few holes in the bag to provide them with air flow.
When the contents turn soft and crumbly, they’re ready to use and can be distributed in a layer up to 3 inches thick around your perennials, vegetables and shrubs. Leaf mold is extra effective at retaining moisture, so it is helpful in keeping ground temperature cool, but be careful not to crowd it too close to the base of plants, or you may invite disease.
3. Lawn supplement
Letting leaves pile up can cause problems for your lawn by inviting mold, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that raking them away is the best solution. Provided that they don’t hide your lawn from the sun, leaves can actually be beneficial for your grass. The trick is simply to break them down into parts small enough that they don’t block the sun. That can be done my setting your mower to its greatest height and mowing repeatedly over the leaves until they’re broken down into bits too small to rake. That allows them to make their way down to the soil below, where they’ll break down over winter, adding their nutrients to your lawn. A mulching mower will make the job even easier.
4. Soil amendment
Applied correctly, fallen leaves can also benefit your garden and flower beds. Take the leaves you’ve gathered and and apply them in a layer about 6 inches deep, then use a tiller to work them directly into the soil of your beds. Over winter, decomposition will enrich your beds, and the addition of “green matter,” as it’s called, can help improve soil conditions. The leaves can improve aeration in soil with a heavy clay component; sandy soil will hold water and nutrients better. To increase the rate of decomposition, you can add a little fertilizer as well.
Finally, if you’re looking for a way to dress your house in the colors of autumn, there’s no more appropriate material than the leaves of autumn. Next time you rake, keep an eye out for the best-shaped and most strikingly colored leaves. They can be arranged them into vibrant wreaths or used in table settings for family get-togethers. Children in particular are often amazed at the change leaves go through, making them perfect for creative activities.