How to mulch leaves?

Leaf Mulch Info – Learn About Mulching With Leaves

Many gardeners view the piles of dropped autumn leaves as a nuisance. Perhaps this is due to the labor involved raking them up or it might be simple ennui as the season changes and cold weather makes its approach. Either way, dead leaves should actually be looked upon as a boon. Leaf litter mulch in gardens has numerous attributes and mulching with leaves is an inexpensive and renewable way to achieve garden gold. Read on for some interesting leaf mulch info to get you composting that spent foliage and cleaning up the yard.

What is Leaf Mulch?

Mulch is any material that is placed atop the soil to moderate its environment and enhance the landscape. There are many types of mulch, and leaf mulch is comprised of exactly what it sounds like, leaves. This organic mulch will decompose and needs to be replaced eventually but, in the meantime, it is improves the soil’s fertility and its organic content. Mulching with leaves is a win/win in many situations where you want more rapid decomposition and is generally a free commodity to anyone that has deciduous trees.

The avid gardener spends quality time amending his or her soil and getting ready for the growing season. Some of us make our own compost, purchase manures or even buy soil additives. The cheaper solution, however, is to use what nature gives you for free. Using leaf litter for mulch enriches the soil and perpetuates the cycle of life by renewing plants.

So exactly how is leaf

mulch good for plants? The benefits of leaf litter mulch are abundant:

  • Applying leaf mulch buffers soil temperatures to keep soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer, thereby protecting plants.
  • It improves soil fertility as it decomposes, which reduces the need for fertilizing.
  • Leaf mulch can aid in retaining soil moisture too, lessening irrigation needs.
  • Leaf mulches also suppress weeds, reducing the amount of weeding for the gardener or the need to use herbicides.
  • They also can help reduce soil erosion in certain instances.

Tips on Mulching with Leaves

The best way to use leaves is to shred them. You can do this in a number of ways but it is best to let them dry first. Once dry, use a lawn mower to chop them into little pieces. Dried leaves as mulch break down more quickly and shred easily. You can also use leaves after the season that have been moist and developed into leaf mold. These are partially decomposed and can be worked into the soil.

Using leaf litter for mulch is an easy way to recycle the debris in your yard. To use the dried leaves as mulch, spread them at a rate of 3 to 4 inches around trees and shrubs and 2 to 3 inches over perennial beds. You can use them to insulate rose bushes in November; just pull them away before the bushes start spring growth.

Work leaf litter into vegetable beds to increase porosity and add valuable nutrients. The smaller the leaves are shredded, the quicker they will break down and the less likely they will mat and mold.

Composting with Leaves

Using leaf litter as mulch has many benefits, but you can also simply compost the dead foliage. You can use the three-bin system, a composter or simply a pile of leaves. Rake the leaves into a pile in an area that will get wet on occasion. Leave the pile alone for about 2 years and it will become rich, crumbly compost ready to amend your flower beds. As in mulching, it’s best to cut them up to fine pieces for quicker composting.

Keep the leaves moderately moist and turn the pile at least weekly. For a balanced compost, mix in some grass clippings to add nitrogen. The proper ratio of nitrogen to carbon is 25 to 30 carbon (leaves) to 1 part nitrogen (grass).

Keeping the pile warm, moist and aerated will guarantee juicy soil in the future and the fine shreds break down quickly for fast compost that will benefit the whole garden.

I can’t think of anything better than leaf mulch if you have trees on your property. Free exercise and free organic mulch to nourish your garden year round! So don’t rake and bag those fall leaves, turn them into leaf mulch instead. Now that you know how to use leaf mulch in gardens, you can take advantage of the fantastic “green” benefits mulching with leaves provides.

Wait, Is It Actually a Mistake to Rake Leaves?


Every year, fall reintroduces us to a raft of pleasures that we get to experience in no other season—hot apple cider, pumpkin carving, and so on. But fall also signals the return of one chore many of us dread: raking leaves. As surely as the seasons change, autumn mornings witness homeowners bent over rusty-tined rakes, endlessly scraping withered foliage onto tarps and into heavy-duty garbage bags. Imperfect though it may be, that’s the world I’ve always known.

Consider my surprise when I learned that, according to lawn care experts, leaf-raking is an optional exercise.

Certainly, a thick layer of leaves should not be left to smother the grass growing beneath. But raking isn’t the only—or even the easiest—method of protecting your lawn’s health. It turns out that mulching leaves—that is, mincing them to shreds with your lawn mower—is what’s best for the health of your lawn. And compared with raking, mulching leaves is much less work.

RELATED: The Dos and Don’ts of Cleaning Up Leaves


Leave a thin layer of leaves on the lawn and mulch them using your mower.

There are plenty of mowers with mulching capability on the market today. As well, you can easily outfit a conventional, non-mulching mower with a serrated blade specially designed for mulching leaves. But neither is strictly necessary. You can mulch leaves with any type of lawn mower, although it might take a few passes to do the job well. No matter what type of mower you own, prepare by setting the blade to its highest setting and removing the bag that collects clippings.

Shred leaves to pieces that are a half-inch in diameter.

Proceed to mow the lawn just as if it were any other day, not the most exciting day of your life—the day you finally break free from the tyranny of raking. The goal is to cut the leaves into shreds that are about a half-inch in diameter (more or less the size of a dime). As mentioned, depending on the volume of leaves that have fallen on your lawn, it might take more than one pass to get the shreds to the desired size. When you’re done, the leaf shreds should have fallen between the blades of grass to reveal much of the lawn. A passerby might easily be fooled into thinking that you had raked!

You still want to see your grass, so use your mower to bag any excess.

If when you’re done you look at the shredded leaves scattered across your lawn and think, “I can’t see any grass whatsoever,” then do this: Reattach the bag to your lawn mower and go over the grass one last time. In the process, you’ll collect a surfeit of mulched leaves that you can add either to your garden beds or compost pile. Consider mulching leaves on a weekly basis during the height of the season so there’s not enough time between mowings for a challenging amount of leaves to accumulate.

As the mulched leaves decompose, they fertilize the lawn.

Decomposing leaves enhance the soil with valuable nutrients that feed the microbes and worms present in any healthy lawn. Arguably, the nitrogen boost that results from mulching leaves is such that you don’t even have to fertilize in the fall. This means that compared with raking, mulching leaves isn’t only easier and more lawn-friendly, but it’s also less costly, saving you both the money and time spent on fertilizing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at leaves the same way again. It’s a shame for them to sit by the curb all wrapped up in tightly knotted plastic bags when they could be gracing your grass with nourishment.

Want to learn more about maintaining your home for fall? Check out this video on must-do maintenance tasks:

Raking leaves again this fall? Stop right now


It’s fall and that means leaves are littering lawns around the country.

Time to take out the rake and bag up them up, right? Wrong.

Environmental experts say raking leaves and removing them from your property is bad not only for your lawn but for the planet as a whole.

Although people often rake fallen leaves and send them to a landfill to prevent their lawns from being smothered and to make yards look better, in most cases, you’re fine not moving them.

“Just leave them where they are and grind them up,” said John Sorochan, a professor of turfgrass science at University of Tennessee.

However, if you have a lot of trees dumping leaves or the piles begin to mound up, Dan Sandor, a postdoctoral researcher of turfgrass science at University of Minnesota, advises mowing over the leaves with a mulching blade about once a week.

Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t rake your leaves and other tips to care for your lawn this fall:

Leaves and yard waste take up space in landfills

According to EPA data, yard trimmings, which include leaves, created about 34.7 million tons of waste in 2015, which is about 13% of all waste generation.

The majority of that – 21.3 million tons – was composted or mulched in state programs, the EPA says, yet still, 10.8 million tons went to landfills, accounting for just under 8% of all waste in landfills.

“The worst thing you can do is put (leaves) in bags and send them to landfills,” said David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation.

Leaves take up space and they also can break down with other organic waste to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change, he added.

Lawn care: Here’s how to grow a great lawn with beautiful, green grass

Leaving your leaves could make your lawn healthier – and save you money

Think you need to spend money on expensive fertilizers to keep your grass healthy? Think again, said Mizejewski.

“Leaves cover up root systems, preserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and other plants. They also slowly break down and … return (essential) nutrients to plants,” Mizejewski said. “It’s a perfect system. Nothing is wasted in nature.”

Don’t rake grass clippings, either: Why you should avoid raking grass clippings after mowing the lawn, and more mower taboos

“It’s free fertilizer,” said Sandor.

Some leaves like maples do a great job of reducing weed seed germination while other species like honey locust add a lot of nitrogen to lawns, Sandor said.

The environment around you depends on your leaves

Butterflies and songbirds alike depend on leaf litter, according to Mizejewski.

“Over winter months, a lot of butterflies and moths as pupa or caterpillar are in the leaf litter, and when you rake it up you are removing the whole population of butterflies you would otherwise see in your yard,” he said.

Without the insects in the leaf litter, you also risk driving away birds that might have come to your yard looking for food to feed their offspring in the spring.

Fall foliage: Ready for leaf-peeping season?

That’s especially concerning in 2019, Mizejewski said, citing a September study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, which found that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

“Keeping some leaf litter can really benefit these kinds of declining wildlife,” Mizejewski said. “This is wildlife conservation on the scale of your lawn.”

Sorochan, at University of Tennessee, said that keeping leaves on your lawn also has the added benefit of reducing fertilizer runoff.

Algal blooms can kill wildlife and harm human health, and they often form when excess fertilizer runs into waterways. Because leaving leaves on your lawn serves as a fertilizer, if no other fertilizers are added, it will reduce runoff, Sorochan said.

Blowing leaves into the street is also bad, said Minnesota’s Sandor. Because leaves have so many nutrients in them, they can break down when they get into sewers and also cause algal blooms in waterways, he said.


But you still might need to do some raking

While in most cases, your lawn will benefit if you keep the leaves where they fall, some raking may be necessary, the experts agree.

Sandor said leaves and lawns are different shapes and sizes, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If it looks like your mower won’t be able to handle all the leaves or like your lawn is being smothered, that’s when you may need to rake them to thin it out, he says.

If you do remove your leaves, the best thing to do is cut them up and drop them in a plant or flower bed or another part of your lawn that doesn’t get leaf cover, Mizejewski said.

That will provide a natural fertilizer and mulch for those parts of your yard. If you’re worried the leaves will blow away (though they should be fine), lightly water them, Mizejewski said.

If you don’t have a plant or flower bed or have too many leaves, start a compost bin, he and Sandor advise.

Some municipalities also have compost programs, which allow you to send your leaves off and get mulch back, Mizejewski said, but composting at your house is better so you don’t have the added pollution of trucks and off-site machines taking and processing the leaves.

“This is about taking baby steps for most people and getting to a maintenance on your yard and garden that is a little bit more environmentally friendly and wildlife friendly,” Mizejewski said.

Contributing: Mary Bowerman, USA TODAY. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

The pumpkin spice lattes are back, and sweater weather is finally here. To get in the fall spirit, we’re looking at when fall foliage is expected to peak this year and rounded up 15 of the most photogenic spots across the United States to see the leaves turn. Your Instagram feed will thank you. Justin Tang, AP Fall foliage is expected to peak slightly later on the east and west coasts this year compared to the past, while the middle of the country will stay more on track with tradition, AccuWeather meteorologist Max Vido tells USA TODAY. The northeastern part of the country is expected to start seeing color around late September into October, with the Midwest and south following suit in the ensuing weeks. The mid-Atlantic and west coast are expected to peak closer to late October and early November this year, he added. Continue scrolling through for some of the prettiest spots across the country to catch the changing colors this fall. CJ GUNTHER, EPA-EFE Polebridge, Montana: Glacier National Park Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake, AP Paris, Maine: Little Androscoggin River Reservoir Russ Dillingham, AP Northwestern Wyoming: Grand Teton National Park National Park Service Clifftop, West Virginia: Babcock State Park Craig Hudson, AP Ward, Colorado: High Rockies Jack Dempsey, AP Virginia: Shenandoah National Park Nikki Fox, AP Newland, North Carolina: Blue Ridge Parkway Linn Cove Viaduct Dave Allen Photography/iStockpho, Getty Images Rutland, Vermont: Green Mountain National Forest Dennis Curran, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Mississippi River David Joles, AP Bryson City, North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Nick Breedlove, Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Somerset, Pennsylvania: Somerset County Historical Society John Rucosky, AP Hancock, Maine: Acadia National Park Pat Wellenbach, AP Albany, New Hampshire: Kancamagus Highway JIM COLE, AP New Paltz, New York: Mohonk Mountain House Mohonk Mountain Resort Red River, New Mexico: The Enchanted Circle STEPHANIE YAO, Associated Press

Interested in this topic? You may also want to view these photo galleries:

No need to rake leaves out of this groundcover bed of leadwort; it’s great winter insulation that’ll break down to feed the soil.

(George Weigel)

The first flutters of what soon will be our annual avalanche of tree leaves is raining down on area lawns.

Depending on your point of view, this is either free mulch from heaven or nature’s time to dump its trash in our yards.

Some homeowners despise falling leaves so much that they rid their yards of all trees and erect fences to keep “the neighbor’s leaves” from blowing in.

Just last month, I ran across a West Shore woman whose husband cut down their back-yard trees and refused to plant new ones even though sun shining in their west-facing kitchen window was hot enough to melt a rubber faucet fixture.

Years ago, one local fellow went to the expense of taking legal action against a neighborhood covenant requiring trees, in part because of the “leaf mess.”

Granted, excessive tree leaves can suffocate lawns and groundcovers.

When leaves blow onto paved surfaces and get wet, people and cars skid on them.

Blown piles of leaves can clog storm sewers and cause spot flooding.

Hot engines from cars parked on top of dry curbside leaves sometimes ignite fires.

And yes, it takes energy (not to mention loss of football couch time) to dispatch all of those dropping leaves from the yard – sometimes several times a season.

All good reasons to get out the chainsaw, eh?

Not so fast. Consider the redeeming side.

Besides the benefit of trees in general (creating shade, creating oxygen, filtering air pollution, sequestering carbon, giving food and shelter to wildlife, etc. etc.), let’s just look at the dropping leaves themselves.

Tree leaves are an organic powerhouse – nature’s key ingredient in building soil.

When leaves drop and decay on our yards, they add nutrition to the soil as well as organic matter.

When they drop under our shrubs and on top of our soon-to-be-dormant perennial-flower beds, they provide a natural blanket that superbly insulates plants over winter.

The combination of fallen leaves and grass clips and/or spent plants from the yard also makes the perfect recipe for homemade compost – the best antidote to your lousy clay soil and a free ingredient to blend with potting soil for container plants. (See my column on “How to compost your yard waste into great soil” for more on that.)

Leaves are such a valuable resource that avid/zealous gardeners have been known to gather leaves from others’ curbs.

Two truths: 1.) moderate amounts of leaves are far more useful to a yard than detrimental and 2.) leaving the leaves in most places makes far more sense than trying to remove every last one.

Leaves on hard surfaces such as driveways, sidewalks and roads serve no useful purpose, so that’s one place to blow them or bag them.

Another is on lawns and evergreen groundcover beds, such as vinca, ivy and pachysandra. Thick piles of leaves shut off sunlight to those and can stunt growth or even kill them.

A light layer is a different story, though.

In groundcovers, if you see more green than brown, that amount will work its way to the ground and decay before causing plant trouble.

This level of leaves on the lawn can be mowed in.

In the lawn, a better solution than raking or blowing small to moderate amounts of leaves is to simply run over them with your mower.

Chopped into bits, those leaves become fast-decaying mulch that adds organic matter and nutrition to feed the grass. They don’t cause thatch as many people think.

Michigan State University researchers several years ago did some comparisons of lawns in which leaves were mowed in vs. raked off, and the leaves-on lawns were healthier and better performing.

If you like the lawn neat, just run over the leaves twice to double-chop them. And if the leaves keep dropping, mow a little more often before the quantities have a chance to build up.

Leaves that fall and/or blow into shrub and perennial beds or around trees can stay. They’ll insulate over winter and collapse enough by spring that they perform the same job that your purchased piles of mulch do.

Why blow leaves to the curb and pay to have them hauled away, then turn around and buy bagged mulch and compost in the spring?

Given that this is free fertilizer and free mulch, it makes little sense to buy a rake or blower to move leaves to the curb, then pay municipal taxes to have the piles hauled away, then buy bags of fertilizer and mulch in the spring.

If you don’t like the look of blown leaves in beds, instead of removing the leaves, top the leaf layer in spring with a light layer of wood mulch or bark chips. That’ll give you the “clean” look that so many yardeners relish.

Even in areas where leaves should be removed or thinned, think about recycling them on site.

I use an old-fashioned rake to gather leaves that I use to insulate a fig tree, and I use an electric blower-vac (set on vac) to suck up and chop leaves that go on my vegetable garden, under shrubs where leaves didn’t blow, on my lawn, and in my compost pile.

I keep a few bags handy for spring when I use the saved leaves as free mulch around tomato plants and roses.

None leave the property.

Yeah, this takes some work.

I look at it more as free exercise than work. Instead of cursing the job, I’m grateful that I have the health to be able to hoist the rake.

Value of that: priceless.

K-State Research and Extension

Mulch Mowing Fall Leaves

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Like clockwork it happens every fall with the changing of the seasons. This annual change has an effect on many of us as we deal with the bounty of falling leaves. The trees have given us so much during the summer, from shade, homes for wildlife, and the beauty of the changing of color with the seasons. Once the leaves begin to fall we usually forget about their beauty and think of the mountain of leaves as work.
I can remember being handed the old fashioned rake, which appeared to be an inch wide compared to the size of the area to be raked. With each sweep of the rake it seemed like the lawn grew bigger and progress was slow, at best. Shoulders began to ache, callouses appeared on the hands and the project became boring work that seemed like it would never end.
I dreaded raking the leaves. I felt fortunate as I did not have knee deep piles to pick up. My goal was to find creative ways to avoid retrieving the rake from the hanger in the garage. Being a good Extension agent I did my homework and researched alternatives to leaf raking. I am glad to report that the rake rarely gets dusted off now. I found that managing fallen leaves takes a creative approach and judicious use of the lawn mower. I am here to tell you it works if you follow a few simple guidelines and strategies.

Mulch mowing leaves back into the turf
The first step to avoid raking is to embrace the concept of mulch mowing. Mulch mowing is basically what it sounds like. The leaves are mown back into the turf and turned into mulch like material that is returned to the soil. Years of research at leading land grant universities such as Michigan State have shown this process is efficient and actually benefits the lawn when properly done.
It is simple, with only one drawback. The drawback is more frequent mowing, which still beats hand raking. Frequent mowing is the key for successful mulch mowing. Mowing during the leaf season is not based on grass growth but on the rate at which leaves fall and collect on the lawn. Mow each time a thin layer, an inch or so of leaves cover the turf. This thin layer is chopped by the mower and then filters through the leaf blades where it works its way down to the soil, naturally composting and returning nutrients to the soil.
This process of frequent mowing can continue as long as the shredded leaves do not start to pile up on top of the turf and shade out the grass. Research has shown if done properly six inches or more of fallen leaves can be chopped by the mower and returned to the soil without causing damage. Let me repeat this important point. This is a series of frequent mows over a period of time which reduces up to six inches or more of leaves into fine mulch that filters back into the turf. This is not waiting until six inches of leaves blanket the lawn. I have practiced this approach on my own lawn for several years with great success.
Another trick to help this process become more effective is proper fertilization. This may be an added bonus as normally our cool season lawns, bluegrass and tall fescue, are fertilized in the fall months of September through November. The nitrogen required for a healthy lawn stimulates and activates the natural soil- borne organisms to feed on the decaying leaf organic matter. This process turns the leaves into natural compost to help improve the soil and, in turn, promote good grass growth.
Okay, I realize some of you may be rolling your eyes and saying “Six inches of leaves? I get two or three times that many. Mulch mowing won’t work for me. I’m still going to have to rake.” There is a second step that lets your mower do the heavy lifting while requiring less time raking.
Mulch mow then bag
Once you have successfully mown at least six inches of leaves back into the turf your next option is to continue to mow but in a two-step process. The key is to remove the bagging attachment with the first pass. Once a covering of leaves have fallen get out the mower sans bagger. Mow the leaf piles and allow them to fall onto the turf. Mowing leaves the first time over with the bagger results in the leaves being sucked into the bagger and not being shredded. Without the bag the leaves are chopped into smaller pieces. It is alright if during this pass the fragments cover the lawn. The second pass will be made with the bagging attachment in place. The chopped leaves will now be sucked into the bag were they take up considerable less space because of their smaller size. The volume of leaves collected will be decreased two- to four-fold. This means you have to physically handle less leaves.
Chopped leaves as garden mulch
The good news is these collected twice-mown leaves are an excellent source of mulch for the landscape. Chopped leaves can be spread around trees, shrubs and gardens to help conserve moisture and control weed growth.
Keep yard waste from entering our ponds and streams
The worst way to manage fall leaves is to rake, sweep or blow the fallen leaves out into the street. Leaves that end up on the streets can clog storm drains. These leaves eventually work their way into our streams. As they breakdown they release nutrients which contribute to lower water quality, cause algae blooms which can lead to fish kills and unpleasant views of nature. This is a major problem for many of our neighborhood ponds.
Many sub-divisions have bodies of water they manage at great expense to each homeowner. The organic matter from fallen leaves and grass clippings is a leading contributor to the algae issues which result in expensive chemical treatments to control. If each of us do our part and keep our leaves at home and out of the streets it will help make a difference.
As the leaves start to fall, give mulch mowing a try. It really is not that much work because the mower does the work for you. Adopt my goal of letting the leaf rake collect another layer of dust hanging in the garage this fall. I know your back will appreciate the break from this ritual of fall.

Leaf Mulch FAQs

How is leaf mould different?
Leaf mulch and leaf mould are often confused by many, as leaf mulch eventually breaks down into leaf mould. Leaf mould is a thick, black crumbly substance that acts as a soil conditioner which helps the soil structure and helps it retain moisture.
Is leaf mulch acidic?
Most leaves are slightly acidic when they fall, as leaves break down they return to a natural pH. Some leaves aren’t suitable for mulch at all. Some contain natural herbicides that can inhibit plant growth. Camphor, walnut and eucalyptus are notorious for this effect and strongly advised against use for mulch, mould or compost.
What about evergreen leaves?
Evergreen leaves like holly, forsythia and cheery laurel should be added to your leaf mould pile instead as these take longer to break down. Likewise, conifer needles can take years to break down, these should be added to your compost where microbes and decomposers are more plentiful.
How does it compare to bark mulch?
Outside of making your own, leaf mulch can be expensive. Bark mulch is an inexpensive and accessible mulch alternative for many, it’s frequently used in landscaping and is very decorative. It’s a great way to recycle unwanted manufacture waste. It’s excellent for insulating roots and retaining moisture, as they eventually decompose, they return nutrients and a lot of nitrogen to the soil. Be careful not to turn into your soil as it doesn’t mix as efficiently as softer mulches, like those made of leaves. Be wary too, bark can be dyed, and some of that residual dye is inorganic. So, if you’re looking for a wholly organic approach, look out for additives and synthetic dyes.
How long does leaf mulch last for?
A good covering of leaf mulch will last for up to a year, by which time your 3 or so inches you started with will now be less than one inch. Keep an eye on this, and when it’s low, turn that last part of decaying mulch into the topsoil and then replenish with a new layer of mulch 3-4 inches thick. .

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