The leaves have been beautiful this fall, but as they fall on our lawns many of us start to think about how to GET RID of them. It is time consuming to rake them all up and put them in bags for the curb. There isn’t a good place for all of the piles if you don’t bag them. It is expensive to have someone clean them up and haul them away for us. If they are left on the grass, they will kill it. It is easy to think of the leaves as a bother and a waste product. If you start to think of leaves as a resource that can save you time and money next summer and help you have a healthier yard, it becomes easier and more enjoyable to process them and store them for next growing season.
Leaves are a great resource for the home landscaper or gardener. If your soils need more organic matter, shredded leaves can help. If your landscape and vegetable beds are bare, shredded leaves can provide an effective, attractive, low cost weed barrier. For those of us who have compost piles, leaves help make a good compost when they are shredded and mixed 1 part leaves to two parts things like weeds, grass and kitchen scraps.
For all of these purposes, shredded leaves are best. And since you may not be able to use all of them at once, shredded leaves also store better than whole ones. If you try to pile all of the leaves from your yard in one place, it will most likely be enormous and deep enough to lose a few children and dogs in. It will also kill everything underneath by suffocation, and in the spring the leaves in the bottom of the pile will be smelly, heavy and not very useful. Shredded leaves take up dramatically less space, so they store in a much smaller spot, and they drain easily. The pile can begin to compost a bit over the winter, but will be easy and pleasant to spread on your gardens in the spring.
The easiest way to shred the leaves is to double shred them with your lawn mower. If you try to pick them up as you mow, they will not be shredded completely and they will fill up your bag within a few feet. So first mow the lawn before the leaves are more than two or three inches deep, then go back over the lawn with your lawn bag attached. If you have a wheel barrow or lawn cart, empty the bag two or three times into it to save trips to the storage pile. A semicircle of wire fence will allow you to make the pile deeper.
If you have a vegetable garden with open soil, you can protect it from erosion and early weed growth by placing an inch or two of the leaves over it this fall. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has done a number of research projects to look at the effects of fall vs. spring leaf additions as well as oak vs. maple leaves (Bulletin 966, July 2000), and found that it is fine to fall apply leaves, though it is slightly better for vegetable production to wait until spring to spread them, when some of the complex chemicals that can stress some crop plants (such as peppers) have had a chance to break down and move out of the leaves.
If you have a compost bin, it will never hold all of the leaves from even a single tree. Furthermore, a bin filled with only fallen leaves won’t have enough nitrogen rich ingredients such as weeds, grass and kitchen scraps, to keep the pile breaking down over the winter. If you have a shredded leaf pile to draw from, as you add kitchen scraps this winter, you can cover them with some of the leaves. They will break down much faster because of their small size and the fact that they are mixed at a more even ratio with the scraps.
Finally, any remaining leaves can be used in the spring. The partially composted leaves make a good mulch for your flower gardens and shrub beds. You can also incorporate them into your vegetable garden in equal parts with compost and composted manure to enrich your soil.
Shredded leaves are a free but valuable resource. Use them this fall to cover any bare garden soil. Keep the rest in a corner of your property this winter and use them next spring to help build your soil, keep weeds controlled, keep moisture in the soil and to make the beds look nice.