How to mulch ground cover, plus 4 more tips for autumn leaves in WNY

broom leaves on perennial bed in Western New York
To mulch ground cover plants, use a broom to gently nudge the leaves down toward the soil. It works better than a rake, which can damage your plants. Photo courtesy Lyn Chimera


by Lyn Chimera of Lessons From Nature 

Many people dread raking up autumn leaves, but you should look forward to it. Leaves are a free resource for your landscape, a bonus from nature. Don’t throw them away!

Here are five tips on using autumn leaves in different parts of your landscape.

Leaves on the lawn

If there is a light covering of leaves on your lawn, you can mow right over them and leave the chopped-up leaves on the lawn. They will work their way down into the grass and serve as a light mulch that helps add life to the soil, which in turn helps feed the lawn.

This will not cause thatch.

However, a thick layer of leaves left on the lawn can smother the grass by blocking light and air. If there is a thick layer of leaves, the leaves should be raked up or captured in your lawn mower bag for use in other parts of your garden. (More about that farther down.)

Leaves in ground cover

If you’ve ever raked leaves out of ground cover like pachysandra or myrtle, you know what a difficult job it is. Not only is it tedious to do, but raking can damage the ground cover by uprooting stems and tearing leaves. A thick covering of leaves left on top of ground cover will get matted down by the snow and could cause damage similar to thick leaves on grass.

To use the leaves as mulch, work the leaves into the ground cover where it can help insulate the ground to prevent damage from temperature fluctuations. The leaves will also decompose, which benefits the soil.

The easiest way I have found to work the leaves into the ground cover is by using a broom. Simply move the broom gently over the top of the ground cover and the leaves will fall in between the plants.

Leaves in garden beds

Leaves provide a blanket of protection around perennials. This helps prevent heaving of shallow-rooted plants and protects the soil from temperature fluctuations.

In addition, many insects, including butterflies, overwinter in leaf litter as larva, pupa or eggs. Removing the leaf litter eliminates this habitat for these beneficial insects.

In spring, leaves that haven’t decomposed can be removed or left on the ground as mulch. Any leaves matted around the crown of plants should be removed and put in the compost pile. When there are parts of garden beds that have no leaves, I spread mulched leaves from elsewhere.

Gathering leaves

If you don’t have enough leaves on your property you can easily gather them from around your community. In the fall I always have large leaf bags and a rake in my car. Look for leaves that have already been mulched. No sense mulching them with your lawn mower if you can gather ones that have been done for you. If there is some grass in with the leaves that’s fine too. I simply stop by the curb and rake piles into leaf bags. Some I use fresh for the above mentioned purposes and the extras are stored in the leaf bags to be used in the spring. To store, poke some holes in the leaf bags for air circulation. If you’re storing the bags in the garage, shed or other structure, leave the bags open at the top. If you’re storing them outside, the bag can be closed.

Leaf Mold

Leaf mold isn’t moldy. Leaf mold refers to partially decomposed leaves, which makes a wonderful mulch or soil amendment. You can even use it in potting soil.

To make your own leaf mold, rake up a pile of leaves (mulched leaves preferred), turn it every so often and add water if dry. In a few years you will have amazing leaf mold.

Another way to do this is to make a large ring with chicken wire, hog wire, snow fencing or some other material that lets air through. Just pile the leaves in. You’ll get the same results.

Closed plastic bags with ventilation holes left outside will accomplish the same thing.

13 Comments on “How to mulch ground cover, plus 4 more tips for autumn leaves in WNY

  1. Donna, if there aren’t any seeds on your grass, it’s okay to put it in the composter. If there are seeds, the seeds will be in your compost and can grow new grass plants wherever your spread your compost. If the grass is seedy, you could try setting the clods grass-side down in an out-of-the-way spot until the grass dies. Then you can shake the soil off and reclaim that. (Keep your eye out for seeds.) The grass you can set out with sticks and such for your municipal pickup. I hope that helps.

  2. Can I put grass with soil on it into the composter? We put in a paver path and aren’t sure what to do with all this grass.

  3. Can I put grass in my composter? We put in a paver walk and have a lot of grass and soil that was taken out.

  4. Today I spent two hours vacuuming the leaves off and out of my blue rug juniper ground cover. In the process, I vacuumed tons of old, dead needles that had formed a mat at the base.
    The leaves are so thick, I’m afraid they would smother the plant if I just worked them in. And there’s tons of green moss growing on the thicker bottom branches. The vacuum is even pulling off a lot of the moss.
    There’s GOT to be an easier way, however!

  5. Some plants don’t do well over the winter if the crown stays too damp or wet from leaf mulch etc. I grow several stands of Lobelia cardinalis, and Lobelia syphilitica, I rake any leaf mulch off and away from the crown. If I do get mulch or leaves on them then I give them breathing room as soon as possible in spring. The wet mulch will rot the crowns otherwise. The same can hold true for plants that prefer good drainage or drier growing conditions.

  6. Jill, I don’t see any reason why you can’t just leave them for now. If you see any spots where the leaves are smothering plants, sweep them in with a broom as Lyn Chimera suggests.

  7. Just want to confirm whether I can leave all the leaves in my garden until spring? I have a no mow back yard which is all garden beds and paths. Raking is a real chore especially this year with everything so wet. I don’t have any trees but I get a fair mount of leaves from the neighbors trees especially building up around the fence lines. In the past I’ve used a vacuum leaf shredder and make leaf mold – thinking I could do that just as easily in the spring as I have in the fall.

  8. I also do the same thing with the soil from my pots. Sometimes I even dump it in my composter.

  9. I have been doing this very thing for years. It adds an extra layer of nutrients to the garden soil. Why waste the soil you’ve used in your pots and window boxes that is so expensive to begin with. I pull the dead plants out, shake the dirt from the roots over the garden then spread the remaining soil.

  10. After my potted annual plants are finished for the season, I have been shaking off the potting soil mixture back on my perennial plant beds as protection during the winter. Is that a good idea? Does it do any harm and is it beneficial for the perennials?

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