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What to do with all those leaves?


Mr. Much More Patient and I spent a good part of the weekend dealing with the first round of fallen leaves at our house. Because we have a lot of trees, it works better to do it in two or three sessions rather than wait until everything is on the ground.And while some people bag their leaves or push them to the curb for pick up by the city, every leaf in our yard gets put to use in any number of ways.


First off, I’ll admit to a bit of ridiculousness when it comes to leaf clean up. I blow or rake leaves out of garden beds so that they can be chopped up and put back in those garden beds. Go ahead and laugh at me, because I agree that sounds a little insane. But I’ll tell you why I do that: Chopped leaves break down in months; whole leaves take much longer and can stick together and create a mat that’s difficult to break up. Of course the latter works just find in forests, so clearly it’s nothing major to be worried about, but aesthically it’s not as pleasing to me.

The leaf pick up process starts with our lawn tractor and a bagger. The mower chops the leaves up some. From there, I run them through the chipper shredder, which chops them up into about half-inch sized pieces. Because the mower cuts the lawn at the same time, there is some grass mixed in as well, meaning that there’s a pretty good balance of nitrogen-rich material (grass) and carbon-rich material (leaves) and it should all break down relatively quickly.

It’s not the prettiest composting operation, but it works.

From there, I use the leaves in several different ways.


Garden cleanup produces a lot of green material in fall so I need a lot of leaves to get the compost balances right for proper cooking. To be honest, if I were composting “correctly,” I would have a bin to hold greens in until I needed them, but I’m a lazy although enthusiastic composter, so it all goes in the bin when I have it and I try to figure it out later. Basically I jam the bin as full as I can with leaves along with the greens, throw some water on it before I put the hoses away for winter, and let nature do the rest. By late spring, most of it is lovely compost and the rest becomes the basis for future compost.


I did this for the first time last year in one part of the garden and I was so happy with the results that I’d like to do it everywhere I’m able to this year. After I clean out my beds (I leave some plants standing for winter interest, others get cut back, and I try to remove all the perennial weeds that I can), I just throw on about a 4-inch layer of chopped leaves. In the bed I did this in last year, I had significantly fewer weeds in spring and by mid-summer, when the plants had filled in, the mulch was almost entirely broken down. It does take a lot of leaves to mulch like this, however.

Chopped into tiny bits, the leaves quickly break down into leaf mold or as part of compost.

Leaf mold, which is nothing more than what’s left after leaves disintegrate, is an amazing mulch and soil amendment. I like to mix it in to potting mixes to help lighten the soil and add some beneficial microbes. It’s also a fabulous mulch for spring and summer. The good news is that making leaf mold requires nothing more than patience. Some people do it by filling up plastic garbage bags with damp leaves, poking some holes in the bag and letting it do its thing, but all I do is make a pen out of chicken wire (just to keep them from flying everywhere), and fill it up with leaves. I use my chopped leaves, but whole leaves work just fine too. I never look at it again until they’ve broken down and it’s time to use what’s left.


On occasion I’ll protect the crowns of cold sensitive plants with leaves. For the roses I planted this year, I will use either a rose collar (here’s an affiliate link to one I found but haven’t tried) or create a cage with chicken wire or hardware cloth and mound up leaves over the crowns. I’ve also done this with non-bud hardy hydrangeas with some success (and some failure). The key is to wait until the plant is dormant before you do this. I’ve heard Thanksgiving weekend as a suggested time and that works pretty good for me.


Any plants that I either don’t have time to plant or don’t want to plant in their final location get heeled in inside their pots (usually in my raised vegetable beds, just for convenience). After a hard freeze I go back and cover the whole group of pots with mulched leaves to provide additional insulation.

The shredding part of this leaf operation is optional, but it does speed up the decomposition process. Mulch with a mower works just fine as well and for compost and leaf mold, whole leaves will work as well.

I actually use so many leaves that I occasionally take some from my neighbors. I’m not going to lie. All of this is boring, tedious work, often done in a fair amount of solitude because I’m wearing hearing protection when we run all these machines, so it’s not my favorite job. But when nature dumps a whole bunch of free, fabulous material at your feet, you don’t look that gift horse in the mouth.

9 Responses

  1. We haven't mulched our leaves since we did the driveway in 2015. I am trying to talk Mark into doing it again as I love having it to put on the garden. He didn't want all that debris working its way between the pavers but it will happen whether we mow leaves in the driveway or not. Plus I love that righteous feeling!

  2. Linda, I have used the weed wacker on my hostas and I don't like the way it tears the leaves. Even tho the remains die down it looks painful to me. I guess it works ok as I have done it with no ill effects but as I say, I don't do it any more. Maybe your weed wacker is more powerful than mine it it might make a nice smooth cut. ???

    As to those leaves. I love em. Chop them up, fill up the compost bin and the raised bed in the veg garden. Marvelous stuff. You do a lot more chopping than I. I only use the mower on them.

  3. I do a lot of the same (even the removing from the garden and shredding and putting back on the garden)- and have even been known to take some of my neighbor's chopped up grass and leaves that are on the curb awaiting pick-up by the town. I also try to leave some whole leaves for the squirrels or other critters that might use them for cover. I recently read The Humane Gardener and it advocated doing so. Just doing my part.

  4. I hope you don't mind a question as long as you are talking about Fall clean up. We are about ready to cut back our perennials and I have come up with the idea that perhaps using a weed wacker to cut back the hostas would be o.k. We have quite a few hostas and I thought this would be a great time saver. What is your opinion? I appreciate any insight you might have. Thanks!

    1. Hi Linda! I think you could try the weed wacker, just make sure you don't cut too low and damage the crown. You may also want to consider just letter them die back. In spring it's pretty easy (although a little mushy) to grab what's left and pull it out by hand, no cutting needed.

      1. Hi Linda I hope you don’t mind me chiming in too. I let Mother Nature do the hard work with the first hard frost, then I find the mushy leaves easy to clean up and dispose of (and no damage to the crown). Emma

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