The end of the summer garden is always bittersweet for me. I miss my daily fresh cut lettuce but I also love the falling leaves and bright reds and oranges of autumn. Luckily, those fallen leaves are more than just pleasing to look at. In this helpful guide, we’ll walk you through a few easy ways to use your fallen autumn leaves as zero waste and cheaper options around your place.
One of the best sustainable and organic ways to help prepare your garden is to add a mulch, and the beautiful fallen leaves of autumn are a great way to this. According to Ready Nutrition, in the gardening community, leaves are huge. When they are composted they become known as “black gold,” a nutrient-rich material that can be used in a multitude of ways in the garden.
The life cycle of a leaf begins when a tree makes its leaves in the spring. The tree concentrates all of its energy and nutrients into making the leaves because the more leaves there are, the more photosynthesis can occur. When the leaves drop in autumn, they create a ground cover for the trees to conserve moisture. As the leaves decompose, they provide the tree with nutrients and resupply the depleted soil with microbes. The roots of trees can then absorb the nutrients and minerals via the soil in order to create even more leaves the next spring. It’s a unique life cycle that can be taken advantage of.
To use your leaves as mulch, you’ll want to start by shredding them. If you don’t have a leaf shredder, Gardeners suggests running over them several times with a lawn mower after a good layer has blanketed the ground. Shredding one leaf into several smaller pieces does a few beneficial things. It increases the surface area, giving microbes many more places to work and it will prevent the leaves from packing together into layers that won’t let water or air penetrate. It also reduces the volume dramatically.
Once you’ve shredded your leaves into 5 or ten pieces each, you’ll want to rake up as many as possible into a pile. Save some of these leaves for spring! Store them in plastic trash bags in a garage or barn for next spring and use them as mulch in your gardens. In time, shredded leaves become something called leaf mold. Leaf Mold is the result of allowing leaves to decompose over a series of months and will create an earthy mulch to use in a garden. It is a great money-saving substitute for peat moss, which can be costly. This nutrient-rich mulch can be used during any growing season and will provide added cover to delicate root structures and prevent soil erosion at the same time. According to studies, adding leaf mold to soil or used as a partially decomposed mulch improved the soil ’s moisture retention by 50%. It also insulates root crops such as carrots, turnips, and rutabagas, thus creating a longer growing season. What’s more, it does wonders for the soil!
*Helpful Hint: Be careful with some kinds of leaves. Walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel leaves contain substances that inhibit plant growth. It’s best to compost these leaves before using them in your garden.
As for the rest of the shredded leaves, some can get put aside for a month or so to be used for mulching garlic (if you have decided to grow some), tender perennials, and roses. The rest should be put to work in the vegetable gardens. After cleaning out the beds of a vegetable garden, cover the soil with a layer of shredded leaves and fork that in a bit. On top, add some granular organic fertilizer and a compost if you have any. By spring it’s all a crumbly mix that plants absolutely love!
You can also use unshredded leaves as compost. Adding leaves will help retain needed moisture for the compost heap, as well as provide important microbes to help during the decomposition process. Earthworms will feast on these leaves and in return make nitrogen-rich worm castings (worm manure) to use in your garden. Simply pack them into your compost bin throughout the year to balance the food scraps and other materials that go in there. The leaves will also help keep the compost pile from getting compacted and soggy.
Another great use for those fallen leaves is chicken bedding. Leaves are an excellent replacement for typical hay or straw beddings. Not only are they free, but they are right in your backyard! If you have chickens, this is a wonderful and less expensive way to provide an organic bedding for your birds. Shovel the old bedding into your compost bin, and use unshredded leaves stored for about month or so. Make sure the leaves are completely dry before using them as coop bedding. Chickens love dry whole leaves for their bedding because the hens can scratch at them. Use more leaves than you think you’ll need because the chickens will quickly break the leaves up looking for bugs and grass to eat.
Those beautiful fallen autumn leaves are an excellent way to use less waste and save some money! They are readily available and an organic source of nutrients for your garden and compost pile. Gather some up today and enjoy the fruits of your labor at a lower cost.