It’s leaf season! 9 tips for using autumn leaves in your garden

autumn leaves on grass
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

We enjoyed many weeks of beautiful autumn color in Western New York this year! Now it’s time for the leaves to fall.

The bad news is that our recent strong winds brought down branches as well as leaves. I hope you didn’t sustain any damage.

The good news is that the fallen leaves give us things to do in our landscapes at this time of year. And those leaves can be used in so many ways!

Here are nine ways to use those autumn leaves.

Sweep leaves into ground cover

Lyn Chimera of Lessons from Nature shared this tip about how to deal with leaves in ground cover. A thick covering of leaves left on top of ground cover will get matted down by the snow and could damage your plants. But it’s difficult to rake leaves out of ground cover such as pachysandra or myrtle, and raking can damage the ground cover by uprooting stems and tearing leaves.

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 to work the leaves into the ground cover, Chimera said, 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.

Help your lawn

Keep the leaves on your lawn when you mow the grass and chop up the leaves as you go. Those bits of chopped leaves are good for your lawn.

If you have too many leaves on your lawn, they can mat down the grass and kill it. Don’t worry; there are lots of others ways to use those leaves.

Insulate perennials

Use leaves around your perennials now to help make sure the roots don’t heave up out of the ground if we get periods of freezing and thawing over the winter. That’s especially important in years when we don’t have much snow cover.

herbs covered with leaves
Heap leaves on top of plants in pots to insulate them from wind, bitter temperatures and wild fluctuations in temperatures over the winter. Photos by Connie Oswald Stofko

Pile leaves to insulate containers

If you have plants in containers and don’t have room to store those containers in a shed or garage, help protect them from wild fluctuations in temperature by covering them with a thick heap of leaves.

Keep herbs growing until spring

Cover the herbs in your garden with a thick blanket of autumn leaves and you may be able to harvest them for weeks to come. See this video with Caesandra Seawell, garden manager at the garden at City Honors School in Buffalo (also known as Pelion Community Garden. She covered her herbs in the autumn and in May still had sorrel, red veined dock, rue, oregano and lovage under that thick layer of leaves.

Create a path

Use leaves to create a path. You’d be surprised by how many leaves you can use up this way. The leaves will break down, but don’t worry. There will be more leaves next year!

Bonus tip: This is also a good way to use straw from a straw bale that you (or a neighbor) used for Halloween but don’t want to store for next year.

Use leaves to start a new garden bed now

You can create a new bed over a patch of lawn — without digging! —using a method called lasagna gardening. As the name suggests, you layer the material in your garden.

The first layer is cardboard or a thick layer of newspaper. Over the top of that, you alternate layers of leaves, grass clippings, manure—whatever you’ve got. You need to build it up so it’s a foot deep. This is a great way to use those autumn leaves.

Do it now and your garden bed should be ready in spring.

Add leaves to your compost

If you want the plant material in your compost pile to break down as quickly as possible, balance your high-carbon materials (usually dry and brown, such as autumn leaves) and high-nitrogen materials (usually colorful and wet, such as grass clippings and apple peels).

The most efficient composting occurs with a carbon-to-nitrogen mix of about 30:1. That means that you should have 30 times more dried leaves (measured by volume) in your compost pile than you have kitchen scraps.

That’s a lot of autumn leaves!

It’s better if you chop up the leaves first, using a lawn mower or leaf mulcher. If you put in whole leaves, you may still have whole leaves in spring.

Save leaves

In spring you may find more ways of using autumn leaves, and it’s great to have a few clean garbage cans full of leaves on hand.

One thing you may want to do in spring is use chopped leaves to mulch your garden beds to make them look neat. I think chopped leaves are as attractive as wood mulch. Plus, chopped leaves are free and you don’t have to lug them home from the store.

Mulching has other benefits.

Mulching can help keep weeds down. You may want to lay down a layer of newspaper first, then spread out your chopped leaves. And mulch helps to keep moisture in the soil so you don’t have to water as often.

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