Leave those Leaves!

Here in New England, fallen leaves are on everybody’s mind right now. In the past week, heavy rains, gales and even (horror!) the first wet snow of the season have brought just about all the maple, birch, ash and hickory leaves to the ground. Even the oaks, which are usually stubborn about letting go of their leaves, are mostly bare. What does this mean to the average New Englander? What do we DO with all those leaves?? You can’t leave them on the lawn, they’ll form mats that smother the grass and invite diseases. Gather ‘em up and trash ‘em? No way! Leaves are a northern gardener’s most valuable resource and they are FREE! Here on Beautiful Wildlife Garden, Carole has talked before about leaves and the birds and beneficial wildlife they attract to our gardens. Here are some ideas for how to use your tree leaves as a resource to improve your lawns, gardens and the health of your soil, at the same time supporting populations of our most beneficial, valuable, and often invisible, forms of wildlife.

On your lawn, run over fallen leaves with a mulching mower to chop those leaves right back into your lawn. Soil decomposers such as earthworms, millipedes, and other arthropods will get right to work incorporating the shreddings into the soil. Microscopic soil organisms then convert the nutrients into a form that plants can absorb through their roots. That’s free fertilizer right where the grass roots need it! And you can bet that where there are worms, there will be birds such as northern flickers and robins to eat them. Those leaf choppings also encourage populations of beneficial soil fungi to develop, which helps improve your soil’s health and prevents thatch buildup in lawns.

You can rake, mulch-mow or blow leaves right into your garden beds and edges:

Just rake leaves off pathways and lawns into garden beds. You'll get a great workout and you won't have to burn gas and oil in the process. Many of our best garden plants thrive in soils where leaf litter is allowed to build up. The leaves break down over time, eventually forming deep spongy soil that soaks up rainwater for plants to use. Which means that you won't need to do much (if any!) fertilizing or watering there.

The photo above and below are two different views of the same garden. The garden in spring (below) blooms with running foamflowervioletVirginia bluebells and a young grasslike sedge. All three of these eastern US native plants love deep, moist soils containing plenty of organic matter. Not coincidentally, their natural habitat is under deciduous trees that shed their leaves each fall.

Native spring-blooming foamflower, violets and sedgegrass

The white-flowering foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) was planted by the homeowner. The grape-colored dog violets (Viola conspersa) and the sallow sedge (Carex lurida) appeared on their own and were incorporated into the design of the area. When you work together with Mother Nature, you can have a beautiful garden that supports wildlife and requires very little maintenance. Photo copyright Ellen Sousa,

For perennial beds, however, the aim is not to smother your plants completely with leaves. In damp climates such as New England, this may rot plant crowns and, if done before the ground freezes, thick mulches may encourage voles to take up winter residence to dine on your plant roots. The goal is to retain dead plant materials on site as much as possible, to encourage a thriving soil food web made up of the incredible diversity of tiny life forms that all work together to keep  your soil alive and healthy.

Many shrubs, woodland plants and most trees enjoy a thick mulch of fallen leaves to blanket their roots and recycle the nutrients from their leaves right back into the soil. Start a new, no-dig, natural-style garden by simply allowing a tree’s leaves to pile up underneath the tree’s drip line for a few years. You can plant in the first year with plugs of shade-loving plants if you carefully dig small holes between tree roots. Or, you can wait to see what native plants will seed in on their own in the leaf litter, spread by birds, mammals, ants and other seed spreaders. Leaf litter is also valuable habitat for many forms of beneficial garden wildlife, including predatorial insects, butterfly caterpillars, springtails, mites, as well as the many birds who scratch around in leaves eating all those bugs and insects.

Be careful with oak leaves. If you have a lot of oak trees that shed leaves onto your property, try not to rake too many of them into your beds. They are large and contain chemicals that make them slower to break down than most other deciduous tree leaves, and they can easily form a mat that rots your plants underneath. Chop oak leaves into smaller bits with a leaf shredder (or run over a pile of them several times with a mulching mower) and use the smaller pieces as a mulch, or add them to your compost pile. You can add whole oak leaves to your compost pile, but even in a hot pile, they may take a year or two to break down.

Smaller yard and garden? You can still use every last one of those leaves that fall off nearby trees!

Rake leaves into big piles in an out of the way spot. Be sure to invite the kids to help out with this. They probably won’t help much with the raking, but they’ll love jumping into the piles and hiding! Sprinkle with the hose or allow rainfall to permeate the leaves to kick-start populations of soil decomposing fungi and microbes that will turn the leaves into an excellent soil amendment called leaf mold. By spring, the pile will have rotted down into a much smaller volume, and you can use the leaf mold at any time to mulch your beds and trees instead of buying mulch.

Create an instant compost pile by mixing 3 cubic yards of brown tree leaves with a 50-lb bag of alfalfa meal (which you can get at any animal-feed store). Speed up the composting process by shredding your leaves first, which provides more surface areas to feed the microscopic soil bacteria who begin the process of breaking them down.

Gather up your fall leaves and store them over the winter:

If you store your bags in paper leaf bags, you can throw the entire bag onto a compost pile, add some water, and cover it with "greens" such as grass clippings, yard waste or farm animal manure, and let the pile rot over the winter. In the spring, you'll have compost! Photo by Adriaan Walther.

In the spring and summer, when dry, carbon-based (brown) compost materials are hard to find in the landscape, you can add the leaves to your compost pile to balance out the summer greens that you probably have plenty of, including garden trimmings, vegetable crop waste and vegetarian animal manures from nearby farmers. Leave any small sticks, branches or bark that came in with the leaves. They encourage populations of certain fungi who happen to be very efficient at breaking down tough, hard-to-digest tree materials that take a while to break down.

Pick out any larger sticks, small logs or thick branches and add them to a brush pile, a popular place for some forms of wildlife to seek shelter, protection, nesting and food. Building a brush pile is an easy way to build a very slow-acting compost pile. It won’t heat up and shrink quickly like a compost pile balanced with green and brown materials, but microbes such as fungi, nematodes, bacteria, protozoa and algae rot branches and logs down over a longer period (think years) into rich compost that woodland plants love. During the slow breakdown process, you’ll probably spot birds using the protection of your brushpile, seeking shelter from the elements, building their nests, and feeding on the insects that live on and in decomposing forest materials.

If you’re one of those people who curses the sight of falling leaves, I hope this helps you reconsider your fallen leaves and other “tree trash” as a landscaping asset instead of an inconvenience of living in a region full of beautiful trees! Start using your leaves. You’ll soon learn to love them, and you’ll want to hoard each and every one..

Ellen Sousa is a garden coach and writer living on a 4-acre Massachusetts farm with LOTS of trees, whose leaves feed and mulch her grass, flower beds, shrub borders, pasture and woodland gardens. Whatever leaves are left over are added to the compost pile to feed the hungry microherd.

Don’t Miss! Ellen Sousa’s Book (click image for more information)



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  1. says

    It just floors me when I see people putting leaf bags out at the curb or, even worse, burning leaves, instead of harvesting them for the lawn and garden. I love leaf mold and make a lot of it. The problem I have is with storing the leaves in leaf bags over winter is that somehow, the worms get wind of them and find their way in, causing the bottom of the bag to rot. Then, when I go to use the leaves, the bag falls apart. It’s a very minor problem, in the grand scheme of things.
    Mr. McGregor’s Daughter recently posted..Did I Say I Didnt Like Orange

    • says

      I know..I see those leaf bags out at the street and if I didn’t have way too many of my own already, I’d entertain the idea of rescuing them! Is leaf stealing a crime? :-)

  2. says

    Hey Ellen, congrats on the upcoming book!

    My own post, a couple of weeks back, on what do with fallen leaves got quite a bit of interest. Together we will change what people do in fall one garden at a time. Far too many leaves are still going to the landfill here in Kansas, so there’s more work to do in spreading the information.
    Alison Kerr recently posted..How to grow herbs indoors

    • says

      Thanks Alison! And also for spreading the word through your excellent blog. When my hubby discovered that he could just mulch-mow all those millions of leaves right back into our lawn and pasture, and not have to remove them all, he was a very happy guy. Anything that involves sitting on his tractor makes him happy :-)

  3. says

    I love my fall leaves! Even tho we live in the middle of a small woods, it seems like there is never enough, and I sometimes resort to raking them up in front of the house across the street (the neighbors never bother to clean them up) and shredding them for my own garden. I haven’t resorted to stealing bagged leaves (yet) tho!
    Sandra Parrill recently posted..Be Careful Of the Little Things

    • says

      Stan, it is absolutely nonsensical! But as those products become more expensive to produce and ship, people are looking for ways to scrimp and scrounge, and using fallen leaves as a fertilizer and a soil improver, well, you know it makes sense!

  4. The Nature In Us says

    We love using leaves for our garden beds. Since we began about 4 years ago, we’ve got earthworms everywhere! And the birds to go with them. Most of our trees are oaks so we suck them up with the chopper feature on our leaf blower. Then we put them into the flower beds and around the bushes.

    I have a question though …. I never know the best time to chop them. We’ve done it in the Fall, but then there are lots more to do in the Spring, so we switched and did them all in the Spring. My main concern is about bugs that hibernate. We enjoy our bugs since we don’t use any sprays on our gardens so I don’t want to suck them up with the leaves.

    It’s too late in the Fall when leaves are down for bugs to still be out and about, so they would be buried somewhere. In the Spring, we may suck them up before they come out of hibernation. So … what do we do? Any ideas or knowledge about this topic anyone? Thanks!
    The Nature In Us recently posted..A Time To Give Thanks – Choosing Your Turkey

  5. says

    Well, if you are concerned with protecting those populations of beneficial insects in the leaves, remember that most of the larvae and hibernating bugs will already be partly buried in the leaf litter by now (depending on your climate, of course). There will be some insects in the leaves themselves (especially if they are now wet and matted in the beds) but if you leave at least some of those leaves undisturbed in your beds, I doubt you’ll destroy too many of them if you suck the leaves out and chop them. If you are leaving the leaves til the spring, depending on how much the leaves have decomposed, you would need to be more careful if you use a chopper to suck the leaves out and shred them. You don’t want to be shredding those beneficials as they emerge from hibernation! Maybe you can gently rake the leaves out of the beds instead in the spring? It’s always a balancing act when you are trying not to destroy what you are cultivating..

    • The Nature In Us says

      Thank you for the advice. We’re in Central Virginia and on warm days I still see insects and grasshoppers flying too. That’s been my concern, but as you say, it’s certainly less than in the Spring when everything emerges. We always begin before Spring in early March. Since we have mainly oak leaves, they don’t really mat much since they curl up and dry up but don’t break down at all through their first winter. We have an acre of land, but only half of it is maintained since we’ve left the rest in natural woods w/o any landscaping additions for habitat. But we’ve got trees all over the property so there’s a ton of leaves to deal with. Raking really slows the process down since it takes my sweet hubby a very long time to get them chopped and spread. It’s so very worthwhile though … sure saves us buying mulch and we love feeding the earthworms who work so hard for us.
      The Nature In Us recently posted..Doctors Prescribing Nature

  6. Loret says

    This is great advice! I have limited leaves to deal with but my saplings are starting to grow up and will hopefully begin contributions. Currently I “import” leaves from a friend who has plenty to share and I’m grateful for the additions. My soil is becoming rich (and in Florida, that’s not an easy task!). I’m passing this article on to my still-northern siblings. Maybe it will save them some work!

  7. Susana says

    I am new to gardening and am confused – I want very much to do what’s right for wildlife but hear conflicting advice regarding leaf litter. I have three huge sugar maples that leave a lot of leaves. I’ve heard to just leave the leaves in place but then I also hear that that can smother the ground and encourages rot. Others recommend that it must be shredded to be of value as mulch, but then I am also afraid to chop up insects, larva, etc. and to reduce hiding habitat. I am planning to greatly reduce the size of my lawn by panting a lot of natives, both into meadow and flower beds. I’m not sure if the ideal leaf litter treatment is different for different areas, i.e. under trees vs. meadow vs. lawn vs. flower beds? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    • says

      The leaves under your sugar maples are only a problem if you are trying to grow lawn underneath them, in which case any kind of rot does not benefit the grass there! It’s one reason why lawns under large shade trees are not a good idea. Better to grow perennials and woody shrubs under the sugar maples, especially ones native to the woodland understory – letting the the leaves stay in place are the only fertilizer and soil amendment those plants will need, and they will help the trees, too. I would only shred leaves if you find them heavily covering a lawn area and you want to reduce their volume (shredding can substantially reduce big piles of leaves to small volumes). You are right, shredding the leaves under the sugar maples will chop up all those caterpillars and cocoons of the lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) species that overwinter in the leaf litter!

  8. Rita says

    I have a brand new flower bed planted with established perennials and annuals. We have a very large magnolia tree close to the flower bed and the leaves drop onto it. I have been told to just leave them by some and others tell me I should remove them. Which is it? I can’t find information online about magnolia leaves in a flower bed. Thanks so much. (I do have two inches of mulch in my bed)


  1. […] what I have listed above. There is rarely a reason to need chemicals in your yard. Consider making compost for your fertilizer needs, avoiding monocultures and providing a balanced habitat so that nature […]

  2. […] garden that is also friendly birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife, has an entry ‘Leave those leaves‘ written by Ellen Sousa that has a lot of specific information about using leaves as mulch […]

  3. […] Some species’ larvae are aquatic while others spend their youth in the soil.  Both break down organic matter, returning nutrients to their respective habitats.  As with most of nature, occasionally too much […]

  4. […] research them careful – especially the concept of neonicotinoid chemicals. Improve your soil by keeping your leaves for mulch. Learn about how you can support native solitary bees by making choices in your own […]

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