Fall Leaf Management – What To Do With Fall Leaves
A good share of the nation’s solid waste consists of fall leaves, which uses up tremendous amounts of landfill space and wastes a precious source of organic matter and natural nutrients from the environment. Fall leaf management can be a pain, but it isn’t necessary to send this precious resource to the dump. There are several alternatives for autumn leaf disposal; here are a few of the most “do-able” options.
How to Get Rid of Fallen Leaves
Curious about what to do with fall leaves other than having them hauled away? Consider these options:
Mulch: Use a mulching mower to chop leaves into small pieces. They will fall back onto the lawn where the organic material will benefit the soil. You can also spread 3 to 6 inches (8-15 cm.) of the chopped leaves as mulch in beds and around trees and shrubs. If you don’t have a mulching mower, make a couple of extra passes over the lawn with a regular mower to chop the leaves, without benefit of a mower bag. This task should be done frequently, before the leaves become too deep to manage.
Compost: If you’ve never created a compost pile, you’re missing out on one of the best of all autumn leaf uses. Simply toss them in the compost bin. You can also compost weeds, grass clippings, and spent plants at the end of the growing season, as well as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, used paper towels and eggshells.
Enriching the vegetable garden: If you have a vegetable garden, plow autumn leaves into the soil in autumn. The leaves will decompose by spring planting time. If you want, you can mix a little granular fertilizer into the soil to speed decomposition of the leaves.
Leaf mold: If you have an abundance of autumn leaves, pack them, either shredded or whole, into large plastic yard bags. Moisten the leaves, seal the bag securely, and store them in a cool, dark place. In a couple of years (or less if the leaves are chopped or shredded), you’ll have rich leaf mold that will do wonders for your flowers beds and vegetable garden.
If you don’t have a shredder, small chipper/shredders are relatively inexpensive. Alternatively, most garden centers have chipper/shredders for rent.
What To Do With Fallen Leaves
Autumn leaves are gorgeous, all right … until you have to actually do something about them. Unfortunately, leaving fallen foliage on your lawn to rot is not the best option; it annoys the neighbors and kills your grass. Nor is simply bagging and trashing them an ecologically responsible course of action.
No, we’re sorry to say homeowners will have to get up off the couch and take care of that red, gold, and orange mass in their yard. To help you out, here are 6 suggestions on what to do with fallen leaves – and a couple of caveats on what not to do.
What to Do with Fallen Leaves
- Have fun. Before you buckle down to the serious business of getting rid of fallen leaves, take a little time to play with them. Whatever your age, mound up those crispy crunchy leaves into a gigantic pile that you can then jump or even roll in.* Decorate the house for Halloween or Thanksgiving with festive (albeit short-lived) leaf bouquets. Experiment with seasonal crafts – old favorites like leaf pressing or new-to-you pastimes such as leaf casting.
- Mulch. Turn old leaves to mulch using your lawn mower. Then spread this precious substance in your garden beds and around tree bases to limit weeds and hold moisture in the soil. Small amounts of leaves can be mulched with normal mowing, but as they pile higher, add a mulch attachment to your mower to simplify the task. CAVEAT: Don’t just leave the leaves on your yard as is. Whole leaves, especially large varieties, will choke your plants by blocking their supply of water and oxygen.
- Till. If you’re already planning to till some garden beds for vegetables or flowers, feel free to work shredded leaves into the earth at the same time. As the leaf shreds decompose over the winter (a little slow-release nitrogen fertilizer helps the process along), they’ll provide a ton of benefits to your soil, including: boosted nutrient content, improved soil structure, and an earthworm-friendly environment.
- Compost. Dry tree foliage makes carbon–rich “brown matter” to balance the greens in your compost pile. Once again, shredding leaves will help them decompose more quickly; so will turning the pile every 4-5 days. Cover the compost to keep warm and dry as the weather cools. You might also consider saving a bag or two of well-dried leaves to mix into your compost next spring, when brown matter will be in shorter supply.
- Create a lasagna garden. Put together a batch of lasagna that feeds your plants, not your friends and family. Simple to assemble right on the soil, it’s perfect to revitalize an area of your yard that’s currently barren or choked with weeds. THE RECIPE: One sheet of cardboard or several thicknesses of old newspaper, soaked with water and topped with alternating layers of brown (your dead leaves) and green matter (lawn clippings and veggie scraps from the kitchen), lasagna-style.
- Keep root vegetables fresh. Store root crops such as beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, yams, and more nestled in autumn leaves. Spray lightly with water. This will keep them fresh for holiday meals and on through the winter – until your new baby lettuces and other spring veggies are ready to harvest.
What NOT to do with Fallen Leaves
- Don’t burn or trash. Don’t use dead leaves as fireplace kindling; the National Fire Protection Association warns that this can cause house fires. Don’t add them to the country’s already overfull landfills, either.
- Don’t mulch THESE leaves. Black walnut, butternut, hickory, and pecan trees produce juglone, a chemical that can be seriously toxic to other plants in large quantities. Reactions include stunted growth, wilting, and sudden death! Interestingly, it’s fine to compost these leaves. Just be sure to allow at least a year for the juglone to break down, making the mix safe to use in your garden.
Does all this sound like too much effort? Don’t worry — you can always hire a landscaper to take care of your fallen leaves for you.
Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.
* Reader Betty G. of Iowa wrote in to warn us that fallen leaves may harbor ticks, so use caution. Thanks for pointing this out, Betty!
As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” Today, we’re sharing photos that highlight the colors, scenes, and magic of fall foliage.
Central Park, New York City – Sanjay Chauhan
“I took this picture last fall in Central Park. To see the park peaking with gorgeous colors was a special experience. I noticed that the reflections beautifully magnified the fall foliage, and then I spotted a person sitting on a rock in the bottom left corner. I knew it was going to be a great shot.”
Kvalvika Beach, Lofoten, Norway – Tom Carter
“This photo was taken at Kvalvika Beach in Lofoten, Norway. I was drawn to the angle of the hillside, the foreground foliage, and the way the sunlight hit the tops of the peaks — the shot just felt right. This photo was the result of a three-hour flight, followed by a seven-hour drive through the night, and an hour hike through the dark to see the sunrise. It sounds a bit crazy, but sometimes the pros outweigh the cons.”
Groton State Forest, Vermont – Stephen Barna
“I never experienced a true ‘fall’ while I was growing up in Florida. That’s probably why it took me hours to drive through Groton State Forest in Vermont, when it should have taken less than 45 minutes. I kept stopping to ogle the changing colors of the forest.”
Derby, Connecticut – Jason Hagani
“I spent the day waterfall-hunting in upstate Connecticut and was on my way home in the late afternoon when I spotted this view on the side of the road. It’s only 15 minutes from my house, but I hadn’t noticed it until then! I knew immediately that I was looking at something special — I pulled over on the side of the highway, grabbed my camera, and snapped away. It just goes to show that during a New England autumn, you never know where you might find the shot of a lifetime.”
Vintgar Gorge, Slovenia – Jordan McFall
“We walked through the mist on our way to the river, surrounded by falling leaves. The sun shone through the misty air, creating a beautiful atmosphere. I asked my mate to run back down to the bridge and stand in the middle of it. Everything came together exactly how I had envisioned. What I love about this photo is that it reflects how the moment truly felt at the time — magical.”
Dunderave Castle, Loch Fyne, Scotland – Mark Harris “After spending the day photographing in Scotland, I had taken all of the shots I wanted for the day, so I packed up and started to drive home. The route took me along the east shore of Loch Fyne. As I approached, I saw the castle, nestled among the autumn foliage, and reflected in the Loch. I immediately pulled over and snapped this lucky shot. I’ve learned that if the scene presents itself, you have to grab it then and there!”
The Adirondack Mountains, New York – Michael Block
“My trip to the Adirondacks marked my first experience with fall foliage. Growing up in Los Angeles, I’d only ever heard of the way trees light up in autumn. This shot was taken at a time considered “past peak” in terms of foliage, but it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The vivid colors, the smell, the crisp air — it was truly awesome. Everywhere you looked, there seemed to be a perfect photo. Finding some elevation was a must. It is only from up high that you can really comprehend the endless sea of orange, red, and yellow.”
Novodevichy Convent, Moscow, Russia – Yulia Denisyuk
“I snapped this as I was walking near the 16th-century Novodevichy Convent in Moscow. I loved the way the light from the street lamps fell on the walkway, giving the whole scene a cozy feeling. After this walk, I warmed up by sipping thyme tea with honey — it was so cold that, by the time this photo was taken, I could no longer feel my fingers and toes. Warming up at a nearby cafe seemed like a perfect ending to this beautiful fall day.”
Paris, France – Mary Quincy
“I have always loved fall in Paris — as the trees and leaves change colors, you can really see the transformation into a new season. And what better place to witness this change than at the Eiffel Tower? This bench was empty, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the fact that I was completely alone around this amazing, iconic Parisian monument. To me, autumn is some sort of preview of the winter and Christmas season, which I love the most.”
Nay Aug Park, Scranton, Pennsylvania – John Suhar
“My brother and I arrived at this spot, and there was no one else around to witness the tranquility. As I stood on a bridge to snap this photo, my mind flashed back to the time I biked through New York City’s Time Square to catch an impending train at Grand Central Station. There was quite a difference: being surround by thousands of people in a dense, urban area and feeling total solitude in such a majestic, natural setting. I reflected on these contrasting moments as I pressed the shutter button and loved that I was able to enjoy them both.”
Artist Bluff Trail, New Hampshire – Yanan Aurora
“As I was hiking the Artist Bluff trail in New Hampshire, I was determined to capture the viewpoint I kept seeing on other Instagram feeds. The warm colors of fall make me happy and give me energy, but views like this don’t last long because of falling leaves, so I was so glad to get a photo before the colors disappeared. The best part of the hike was finally reaching the bluff. The view was a sweet reward after a long day of hiking!”
Share this idea!
Ah, fall. Back to school, sweater weather, and warm drinks. Those brightly colored leaves are beautiful on the trees, but they lose their appeal when they start falling to the ground. Now, last week’s kaleidoscope of natural color become this week’s tedious yard work. But even fallen leaves have value. Here are five do’s and a don’t for dealing with autumn leaves.
Don’t Blow It Off
Don’t use a leaf blower. Simply blowing the leaves off your property into someone else’s is just rude. Blowing them into the street will clog storm drains and cause flooding when it rains. But even if you blow your leaves into neat piles, you’re still creating a lot of unneighborly noise and pollution.
Curbside Yard Waste
Leaves are not garbage. If your city offers yard waste collection service, use it. It’s the same amount of work to rake your leaves and bag them (or scoop them into a bin) for yard waste pickup as it is for garbage. Leaves thrown in the garbage usually go to a landfill, where organic matter contributes to landfill gas, the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.
Yard waste collection programs send fallen leaves into large-scale composting facilities, where they and other organic waste is recycled into a nutrient-rich soil supplement.
If your community doesn’t have municipal composting — or you just don’t want to pay for the compost made from leaves you paid to have hauled off last autumn — you can compost leaves yourself. This is the most labor-intensive option, but also the most satisfying. Compost bins can be built in a weekend and the basics of composting are simple to learn. By next spring, you’ll have a bin full of compost to feed your flowers.
Don’t put your leaves in the garbage; they make an excellent mulch for flower and vegetable beds. Photo: werner22brigitte,
Mulch Your Flower Beds
Or, you can skip the bins and go straight to the beds. Unlike animal manures and woody debris, leaf litter doesn’t have to be composted before it can contribute to soil health. Leaves make an excellent free mulch for flower and vegetable beds. Just rake leaves onto your planting beds, leaving space around the stems of growing plants to avoid crown rot. You can pile the leaves up to four inches deep to make a cozy winter blanket for your plants’ roots. To keep dried out leaves from blowing around, you can run over them with a lawn mower before spreading them. Alternatively, keep your planting beds moist through the winter and the leaves will simply decay.
Mulch Your Lawn
Mulching, the easiest option, is also green and good for your yard. Ignore the leaves on your lawn. Continue mowing your lawn as usual until both leaf fall and grass growth have ended for the year. Your lawnmower will chop the leaves into pieces not much bigger than the leaf clippings that you already grasscycle. Leaf and lawn clippings will both break down quickly in the lawn, feeding the soil for next year.
Feature image by Kapa65 at
You Might Also Like…
What to do with Autumn Leaves
Are you as inspired by Autumn leaves as I am?
I find myself gathering up each beautiful red, yellow, orange, brown, and multicolored leaf I come across, marveling over patterns and colors.
I’ve even been known to pull the car over on the side of the road for a particularly striking leaf.
Every day, I come home from a walk with a stack of colorful leaves in my hand (and usually a pocket full of acorns and other treasures to boot).
I pressed some leaves earlier this week, as I do every year. And drew one beautiful, large oak leaf.
Experimenting with paper clay and autumn leaf gorgeousness…
I’ve been photographing them, embracing them with my eyes, contemplating the transitions of life because of them, making leaf impressions with paper clay (a kind of air dry clay)…
Having fun with the heart punch I just uncovered at the bottom of a box… A photo posted by Jean Van’t Hul (@jeanvanthul) on Sep 19, 2015 at 6:38am PDT
…making leaf scratch art, arranging the colors and shapes on every possible surface, and even playing around with the hole punch.
I am so freakin’ in love with Autumn leaves!
In case you’re wondering what to do with Autumn leaves, here’s my list of creative ideas. Use them for crafts, art inspiration, and fall decoration…
11 Creative Ways to Use Autumn Leaves
- leaf doodling
- clay leaf prints
- leaf printing
- leaf painting
- leaf crowns
- a leaf wreath
- leaf art with chalk pastels
- an ephemeral Autumn bunting
- Autumn suncatchers
- leaf peepers
- scratch art leaves
What are your favorite things to do with Autumn leaves?
Photo: Penny Woodward
This is a wonderful time of year for those of us living in cooler climates with introduced ornamental trees. Their leaves are myriad colours. Some of my favourites are the maples of all shades, and the orange and purples of smoke bushes (Cotinus coggygria), as well as the buttery yellow gingko. But some of our edible fruited trees can be beautiful in autumn too, in particular blueberries, and the pomegranate (left) and persimmon (right) pictured above.
Not only do all these leaves look beautiful, but they can also be used to make marvellous leaf mould. My favourite set-and-forget way of doing this takes time. For complete break down it can be up to 2 years, but once established you can just leave it alone. It’s best to use autumn leaves from deciduous trees, but don’t worry if you get some eucalypt or other leaves in there as well. They will eventually break down too.
You’ll need four stakes (metal is best but timber will be ok too) and about 4m of chicken wire. Bang the stakes into the ground in a shady, sheltered position creating a square about 1m x 1m with a stake at each corner. Wrap the chicken wire around joining it to itself. You’ve created a leaf bin. I always put some thick cardboard, vertically inside the bin at the base, creating a 30cm barrier to stop the fine leaf mould from leaking out before the rest has finished breaking down. Water the soil at the base and then fill your newly made bin with autumn leaves, pushing them down to create more room. Water, and water again each time you add more leaves. Once full just leave to break down. Watering from time to time in hot dry weather.
When autumn leaves fall from a tree most of the nutrients have already been reabsorbed back into the tree. So autumn leaves are mainly cellulose. When they break down they produce a terrific high-carbon humus, an essential component of good soils, and which increases the water-holding capacity. This humus can be added to soils, or used more specifically as seed beds. In seedbeds the humus holds moisture in the soil, enhancing the chances of good germination and seedling growth.
If you don’t want to make leaf mould then just add your leaves, in layers, to the compost. Or use as a mulch over already damp soil, but don’t make the layer too thick as it may stop water from filtering through.
By: Penny Woodward
First published: April 2018