Oct 28, 2020

Leaves Aren’t For Landfills

Autumn Leaves in Florida may not be the idyllic multicolored leaf-fireworks show that it is in our northern neighboring states. But we still get leaves that fall to the ground during this time of year.  As a statistic, an acre of trees drops about 2 tons of leaves every year.

And every year, many of you grab your rakes, and your leaf bags, and bag them up for the landfill.

Raking leaves

A familiar sight in Fall – raking leaves!

What if I told you that you’re THROWING AWAY GARDEN GOLD?!?!  Yep, that’s right. You’re sending vital nutrients that your lawn, landscape, and garden plants could use right now off to a landfill.  They’ll bury it under all kinds of garbage…to anaerobically decompose and cause methane gas, increasing the Greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.

You don’t want to do that, right?  Of course not.  Here’s a little Q&A about mulching your Fall leaves.

What are the benefits of using leaves as mulch?

leaf mulch

This is healthy leaf mulch!

Using your leaves as mulch – instead of sending them to the dump – recycles the nutrients you fed to your plants/trees the previous season.  Here’s a list of additional benefits: 

  • keeps your organic waste nutrients local and your gardening efforts more naturally sustainable, 
  • decreases your carbon footprint, 
  • keeps organic material out of landfills, 
  • rebuilds your soil with FREE nutrients which decreases the need for chemical fertilizers,
  • helps inhibit weeds, decreasing the need for chemical herbicides,
  • increases soil water retention and natural aeration which can decrease the need for irrigation,
  • protects your plants from harsh Winter cold we (may or may not!) get,
  • feeds the beneficial soil microbial life promoting healthy soil,
  • provides habitat and food to the necessary critters that live in the soil – like earthworms, for example, 
  • protects the soil from evaporation, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter,
  • helps prevent soil erosion, compacting, and “crusting” (the surface of the soil becoming dried and hard, which increases water runoff and keeps water from penetrating the soil).

Additionally, you won’t have to bag up your leaves and take them to the curb.  That can be an arduous process for anyone, even with the whole family pitching in.

Kale planted in leaf mulch

This leaf mulch shades the soil (or keeps it warm, depending on the time of year), retains moisture in the soil, and protects from weed growth, all helping this kale to grow healthy.

Amanda Streets, from Living Roots EcoDesign in Clearwater, who is an avid composter and landscape designer, says this: “We should all take a hint from Mother Nature…think of a forest – no one is raking up those leaves, yet it is beautiful and thriving.”  This is because the forest decomposes the leaves from the trees and recycles those nutrients to grow and thrive. 

Amanda has taught a composting class at our store and offers classes in gardening, composting, sustainability, and more! She also does Landscape design focusing on edibles and natives!  Definitely go check her company out if you have a moment, tell her I sent you, ok?

Tell me more about using leaves as mulch and why it’s important.

The definition of Nutrient image

Just in case you weren’t clear…nutrients are important!

Leaves contain 50 to 80% of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and the air during their growing seasons (Source).  They are full of trace minerals and nutrients that trees pull up from deep within the Earth and then deposit onto the ground.  As our soils are being stripped of their nutrients due to over-farming and development, leaves return those nutrients to the soil through the process of decomposition.

So, what, I just leave the leaves on the ground? 

Well, sure, you can do that.  But the best way to get the most immediate benefit from your fallen leaves is to shred them and then apply them to areas you would normally mulch. 

Falling leaves and a dog

Falling leaves are FREE fertilizer and mulch all rolled into one!

To shred them, you can mow over small piles of them with a lawn mower (a mulching mower works great).  Then collect the shredded leaves in bags to KEEP. Maybe put them into a wheelbarrow to take to a garden bed that you want to mulch. Or, make a pile in an out-of-the-way place to use later.  

If you see your neighbors have raked up their leaves and set them to the curb for the waste management company to pick up, you can take those too.  Just add to your mulch collection.  It just makes no sense to allow valuable treasure like this to go to the dump.

Bagged leaves

It’s not stealing if it’s going to the landfill anyway…

If you have a lot of leaves, you can also get a leaf shredder machine to make your shredding a little easier and more convenient to bag up.  For both kinds of shredding/chopping of leaves, dry leaves are the easiest to process in this manner.

You can bag it for future use as well.  As leaves decompose in the piles that you have set aside for future use, they become what is called “leaf mold.” Leaf mold, or “mould” as the Brits spell it, is partially decomposed leaves.  This is GREAT material for mulching and also for soil amending. It takes about 1-3 years to make a proper leaf mold. 

It’s created by fungus decomposing the leaves, and it smells like the air does when you’re walking through a forest.  Leaf mold rivals peat moss in it’s benefits, holding 3-5 times its weight in water.  It’s also high in calcium and magnesium, which are essential building blocks for plant life, and in this form it’s very bioavailable.

Leaf mold creation process

What’s the best way to use shredded leaves as mulch?

Using leaf litter for mulch is pretty much the same as purchased mulch, only much less expensive (unless you’re counting sweat equity!).  Spread the shredded leaves at a rate of 3-4 inches around trees and shrubs, and 2-3 inches over perennial beds and vegetable beds.  

You can also work shredded leaves into the soil around vegetable plantings to increase soil porosity and give them a little boost of nutrients.  If you’re using leaf mulch as a kind of soil amendment, you’ll need to add 6-8 inches to the bed and till it in.  You can add a small amount slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to it to help quicken the decomposition process (Shell’s Organic 3-3-3 fertilizer is great for this purpose).  If you just want to suppress weeds in your garden beds, 6-8 inches on top of the soil will keep weeds from growing pretty effectively.

If you’re using leaf mulch to protect plants from the cold, you can pile it up around the base of a plant, let’s use a rose bush as an example, or maybe raspberry canes. Leave it that way for the Winter, and then pull the mulch away from the stems when they start their spring growth so that you don’t encourage fungus.  If you’re doing that just for Winter vegetables, about 6 inches will keep tender plants from freezing when used with a cloth cover like the N-Sulate fabric.

Are there any types of leaves that can’t be used as a leaf mulch?

There are certain leaves that shouldn’t be used as leaf mulch, because they contain naturally-occurring chemicals that prohibit plant life from growing.  Walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel leaves are the three that come to mind.

camphor walnut eucalyptus botanical drawings

If that is your goal, however – to have an area that is just mulched with no plant life, then go right ahead and apply it!  Just make sure you’re not mixing it in with other leaves.

If you do have these kinds of trees and want to use the leaves instead of throwing them out, then you’ll just need to compost them completely first.  That’s where a compost pile is super-handy to have.  Once they’re composted, the heat from the composting process breaks down those growth-inhibitors and renders them inert, then they just become compost.

That’s the basics of leaf mulching – I thought it might be an appropriate topic for this time of year, and I hope you found it helpful! 

So tell me – do you mulch your leaves?  Do you compost them?  If not, have I convinced you to try it?  Let me know in the comments.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Until next time – Keep Growing!



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