It's the middle of December and here in Southern California, a few of our ornamental trees are changing colors and others are dropping their leaves. Interestingly, last week I saw a woman awkwardly raking leaves with one hand and talking on her cellphone with the other. Quite the Los Angeles moment. Well, what can you do with all those leaves?
Of course, what most people do is rake 'em up and ship 'em out. Their municipality will either take them to the dump, where the leaves will turn into methane gas as they decompose, or they will be composted and redistributed. The latter option is good, but you can do better.
The very best thing you can do is to compost your leaves. If left to their own devices in a natural ecosystem, leaves become rich humus. And, if you let them, they'll turn into a rich compost for your garden. All you have to do is let time work its magic.
When using leaves as compost, it's important that they're dry. Otherwise, unless they're supplemented with a dry material like straw or sawdust, your compost will be too wet and will just rot. Generally, the dry element in compost is more difficult to come by than all the wet food scraps and grass clippings, so dry leaves can be a big boon for backyard composters.
Use as Mulch
You can also use leaves as mulch. They are not as long-lasting as, say, wood mulch, but they will certainly fulfill their natural role as ground cover, suppressing weeds, buffering the soil and plant roots from temperature variances, and releasing nutrients as they decompose. They also increase the activity of important microorganisms in the soil. If you take this route and if your leaves are large, it's a good idea to run them through a leaf-shredder or to crunch them by hand a bit. Use this mulch around the base of trees and over open soil in your garden or yard.
Leaf Well Enough Alone
However counter-intuitive (or is it intuitive?) it may seem, leaving your leaves where they fall is also an option. Again, this is how natural ecosystems work: The leaves fall, decompose into rich humus, and aid in future growth (like Mufasa told Simba, “And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life”). As the real nature lovers out there can appreciate, in addition to the previously mentioned benefits, this method also provides a safe overwinter environment for butterfly eggs and pupae, for instance, but also for slugs and snails (that is, they won't be massacred by a run through the shredder or a trip through the compost pile).
This is a variation on the “leaf well enough alone” theme. The reason most people want to get rid of their leaves, besides keeping up appearances, is because they fall on the lawn and threaten to choke it out. Well, here's one way to hit two birds with one stone: Take a lawnmower to your leaf-littered lawn. Let the mower chew up the leaves, and then let the shredded leaves decompose into the grass. This adds nutrients and essential organic matter to the soil, and has the potential to suppress weeds.
Whichever method you choose, at least take this piece of advice: Put the cellphone down and try to enjoy a little time working in your yard!