Fall Leaves: Good for the Garden

© 2011 Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson

The clear, cool days of fall are perfect for wrapping up last-minute garden chores, such as winterizing perennial herbs, flowers and shrubs.  It’s also a good time to cultivate (till) the garden or to create new beds for the spring garden.  Fall is also the time of the annual leaf fall in the Ozarks.  Many homeowners spend days trying to get rid of the deepening piles of leaves from their yards.  But instead of raking and burning or bagging them for the garbage, consider putting fall leaves to use in the garden as a protective, nutrient-rich mulch. 

I was reminded of the value of fall leaves as I spent the day digging garden beds at our new home.  The only area available to us for gardening is made up of solid, greasy clay, which is wholly unsuitable for growing anything but rank weeds.  As if that weren’t bad enough, our little garden spot is also on a slight slope.  Every time it rains, what little topsoil that might have accumulated over time simply washes away.  Because this isn’t our first time around gardening in the harsh clay soils of the Ozarks, Dean and I are more than familiar with the transformative wonders of fall leaves.

© 2011 Jill HendersonOnce a new garden bed has been turned over, whole leaves can be tilled into the soil to improve tilth and drainage.  Leaves also help heavy clay soils release their relatively high nutrients to plants.  This is the perfect time to add additional soil amendments such as compost, rotted manure and lime.  Afterward, we exposed soil can be mulched with more leaves to help prevent erosion, nutrient leaching, and weeds.

Whether used on new or existing beds, there are two ways to use leaves: whole or chopped.  Whole leaves are best used in areas where little vegetation is wanted, such as around the base of mature trees and shrubs or in garden walkways.  It is important to remember that whole leaves eventually form thick mats that can smother small plants and herbs, so use whole leaves only around large, well-established trees and shrubs.  It is also important to keep in mind that while whole leaves do help in the retention of soil moisture, they also tend to shed water across their surfaces, making overhead watering difficult and ineffective during very dry periods.

© 2011 Jill HendersonWhen it comes to mulching vegetable, herb and perennial flower gardens, I prefer leaves that have been chopped, or broken down a little.  The smaller pieces allow more air and water to reach the soil, and they don’t blow around as much as whole leaves do.  Chopped leaves are easier to manipulate around small plants or to push aside during planting time.  They also break down faster.

Chopping the leaves involves a bit of additional work, but in the end it is well worth it.  If you don’t have a chipper-shredder or another ingenious device, simply rake leaves into a long thin and run over it with a lawnmower – preferably one that is armed with a bagging attachment.  One or two passes with the mower is usually sufficient.  Once chopped, simply spread the leaves in an even layer 18”-20” deep .

Anyone who knows me, knows I am an avid proponent of mulching in all seasons.  Mulching in winter keeps the soil at an even temperature, which prevents the heaving of plants during freeze-thaw-freeze cycles.  It can, if applied at the right time, keep the ground frozen or keep the ground from freezing, depending on your needs.  In the summer, mulch keeps the soil cool and moist, reducing the need for excessive watering.  Of course, mulch keeps the garden tidy and weed free, and that reduces the workload throughout the year.  Mulch also shelters a host of beneficial creatures such as frogs, toads, worms and fungi – all of which are a part of the fertility and health of the soil.  This amazing thing called mulch is everything that it is cracked up to be, and more.

Throughout my 22 years as an organic gardener I have witnessed the miraculous adaptability of nature to take advantage of a good situation. The best part about growing organic is that the transformation from bleak monoculture to diverse ecosystem happens with so little effort and surprising speed.  Lawns are much less diverse than mulched gardens. If you were to get down on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass and count all of the insects and other life forms in one square-foot of lawn and then compare that with an equal sized plot of a healthy organic garden that has been mulched, you would see first-hand the increased diversity of living organisms that a mulched garden attracts.

© 2011 Jill HendersonEarthworms are some of the most productive life forms in the garden and they particularly appreciate the thick insulating and moisture-conserving benefits of leaf mulch.  Oftentimes, gardeners that use pesticides on their gardens lack these incredible soil conditioners.  We have found that as we add more organic matter to a new plot of garden, soil tilth improves rapidly, attracting scads of earthworms where there were none before.  As the worms tunnel through the soil in search of rotting vegetation to eat, they loosen, turn and aerate it. Their castings, too, are an especially rich source of nutrients for our plants.

In addition to earthworms, several kinds of mold and fungi live beneath leaf mulch.  These organisms help break the leaves down into rich, crumbly leaf mold, which facilitates the release of nutrients from the leaves into the soil. Other life forms attracted to the mulch include a wide variety of insects, bugs and spiders, all of which unknowingly play their roles in the greater good of the garden.

In addition to worms and molds, mulch attracts toads and frogs to the garden.  Everyone loves a frog in the garden because they are so good at eating the insects that bug us.  At least several times a year I inadvertently unearth a few sleepy spadefoot toads that have burrowed into the pliable soil beneath the leaves.  There they find an abundance of insects and worms to feed on, as well as shelter from the heat of summer and the cold of winter. Without this wide diversity of life in and among the leaves, the rhythm of the garden would be unbalanced and unhealthy.

For me, leaves on the garden are the icing on the proverbial cake.  That icing eventually melts away and becomes the soil itself.  The leaves we put on the garden now will virtually disappear by June.  Fortunately for us, and for all the other life in the garden, we won’t have to wait that long to enjoy its benefits.

But the most wondrous part of using fall leaves as mulch is that this simple and effective item is provided in abundance free of charge year after year after year.

Happy gardening!

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz

© 2011 Jill Henderson

…and don’t forget to tell your friends you got it from

4 responses to “Fall Leaves: Good for the Garden

  1. I like to leave the fallen leaves where God put them. I figger God knew what He wuz doin.
    God also invented an entire forest ecosystem to go along with those fallen leaves, Spring ephemerals, and ferns, shrubs for the open spaces…
    Least-wise, you ain’t burning them, or settin ’em out at ta kerb.

    • Thanks for that comment, Stone. I agree with you about not removing leaves from a forest ecosystem or any wild places for that matter. As leaves break down, they create humusy soil that in turn provides nutrients and protection to the plants, fungi and creatures living there. Removing leaves from a wild setting can lead to soil erosion or worse. However, most people have yards that consist of expanses of lawn and other areas they would rather not have leaves pile up in. In those cases, using the leaves to increase soil fertility and biodiversity in garden beds far surpasses wasting them by burning or dumping them in the trash. By using leaves as mulch, we help to extend the same type of system of regeneration occuring in the natural world, such as in a forest ecosystem. In my case, the forest is all around me and the very small area I need to keep clear of leaves provides me with plenty of mulch for the garden and in turn, my garden actually becomes a part of the forest itself.

  2. So important that you mention the effects of removing leaves from wild settings Jill! If I have more leaves than I need for mulch around the cabin area, I gather them in wire cages near the garden area, and add human urine (which is too much for our composting toilet system) to provide moisture and nitrogen to the otherwise carbon composition of the leaf compost.

    • Thanks, Sara. Yes, while I like using leaves for mulch, I take care to leave those that can stay where they fall or pile up. Better for the ecosystem as a whole. I like your idea of using urine to decompose the leaves in cages – like a big compost pile. I’m sure they break down into beautiful dirt very quickly using that method! This year I would like to cage up extra leaves that so that I’ll have enough to get me through the summer mulching months.

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