It’s a shame to see rows of bagged fall leaves on trash day, even if homeowners use cute orange jack-o-lantern bags. There are so many beneficial uses for autumn leaves that are better than sending them to the landfill. Granted, the leaves will break down fairly quickly in the landfill, but it’s still a waste. Here are 10 better options for autumn leaves, along with an important warning.
1. Make a garden path: This is perhaps the simplest way to use leaves, as they do not need to be shredded. Mix whole leaves with gravel or wood chips to create a dry, weed-blocking path through garden spaces.
2. Make mulch: Shredded leaves are a perfect organic mulch. The leaves can limit weeds and help retain winter moisture. In mild climates, a bed of leaves can insulate some tender plants from winter’s chills. As the leaves break down, they will also add nutrients to the soil. Be sure to shred the leaves, as whole leaves might block water and starve the plants. Also don’t pile up the leaves against the plants. Give them room to breathe, and limit leaf cover to a couple of inches. Any more can be too much of a good thing.
3. Mix leaves into the soil: If you don’t plan to maintain the vegetable garden or annual flowerbeds through winter, till shredded leaves into the garden. The decomposing leaves will add nutrients, boost the organic content, improve the soil structure and encourage earthworms and other beneficial creatures, leading to less work in the spring to prepare for another growing season. Though the leaves will add nitrogen, experts also suggest adding some slow-release nitrogen fertilizers to hasten the decomposition of the leaves.
4. Add to compost heap: If you are already composting, you can make an even more valuable soil amendment by adding shredded leaves to the compost bin or pile, as suggested by HGTV's Kimberly Lacy on Hometalk.com, a home improvement social network. Whole leaves work, but they will take longer to decompose. Leaves add an important carbon-rich balance to food scraps and grass clippings. In the vernacular of composting, the leaves add good “browns” to the “greens” in the mix. If home composting seems stinky and daunting, you can also look for local companies or city departments that collect autumn leaves for large-scale composting projects.
5. Save for spring compost: If you are composting your autumn leaves, you may also consider saving a couple of bags of leaves. “Brown” carbon-rich materials can be tough to find in the spring and summer, when you might be adding more fresh fruit scraps and grass clippings to the compost mix. Dumping in some dried-out fall leaves can quickly provide some balance.
6. Make lasagna (for the garden): This is basically yet another way of composting the leaves. Also known as sheet composting, lasagna gardening is a simple and effective way to transform a lawn or weed patch into a rich garden bed. Start with cardboard or a few layers of newspaper. Soak this layer, then pile on layers of “browns” and “greens.” Alternate leaves and shredded newspaper (browns) with food scraps and grass clippings (greens).
7. Make leaf mold: If you have more patience, you can create leaf mold, an extra rich type of compost, out of leaves and water. Leaf mold retains water well, and is packed with beneficial fungi, as well as calcium and magnesium. However, be warned that leaf mold can take up to three years to make. Simply pile leaves into a large bin, thoroughly wetting down the leaves. Put a tarp or other cover over the bin and let fungi do their thing. Mary Robson of Washington State University Cooperative Extension suggests that the bottom of the leaf pile will have decomposed into black leaf mold within six to 12 months, but the whole pile may take up to three years to break down.
8. Feed the lawn (judiciously): Once the leaves have decomposed, the compost is great for the lawn. By the same token, a thin layer of shredded leaves can break down over the winter and provide some nutrients to the grass. However, this isn’t permission to let all the leaves sit on the lawn. In fact, it is only recommended for mild winter climates. Whole leaves can kill the lawn over the winter, and even mulched leaves can be harmful buried under snow.
9. Entertain the kids: Most young children would have listed “jump into them” at the top of this list of uses for fall leaves. Of course, a big pile of autumn leaves provides blissful, simple entertainment, but it doesn’t actually use or remove the leaves. There are also other ways to entertain children using fall leaves for craft projects. To make leaf ghosts, glue googly eyes, sequins and other decorations to large, colorful leaves. Kids can also make beautiful placemats by simply pressing leaves between two books, arranging them on a board and holding them in place with contact paper. Kids who are too young to carve pumpkins can instead decorate pumpkins with colorful leaves and other crafty touches.
10. Make fall decorations: Finally, don’t let the kids have all the fun. Fall leaves are a great addition to Halloween displays (and offer opportunities to hide and scare the neighbors). There are also plenty of other ways to incorporate the beautiful colors of fall into decorations such as wreaths, window boxes and imitation stained glass.
Finally, a warning about black walnut leaves. Black walnut trees produce juglone, which can inhibit growth or even kill specimens of many other plants. The juglone breaks down in compost, but care should be taken spreading these leaves around other plants. Ohio State University offers more information, and a list of plants that can grow unaffected near black walnut trees.