What you can do with your leaves to promote economy, biodiversity (and save time and money in the process!)

By George Blackwell, Henrico Master Gardener

It’s that time of year when many of us look forward to the beautiful leaves adorning the trees in our yards. Looking forward to all of those leaves falling onto our lawns? Not so much. Instead of raking, bagging or trying blow the leaves away, there are other things you can do. Here are some things you can do with those leaves to do the most good and save you the most time and money.

1. Feed your grass. By using your mulching or regular mower you can mulch those leaves back into the grass where they’ll break down and provide nutrients for next spring. (Pictured at left.) You’ll want to use a 3½- to 4-inch height setting on the mower to allow the mulched leaves to settle into the grass and not blow away.

2. Use the leaves as mulch under your trees, around bushes and even along property lines. (Pictured at right.) The leaves under this magnolia tree break down and eventually help feed the tree. It provides an additional place for birds to forage, and there’s less to mow!

3. The leaves under these fig trees (pictured at left) help protect the roots from freezing in the winter.

4. The leaves covering the soil in this small planting circle (pictured at right) helps protect the roots of the plants and retain

5. This raised garden bed (pictured at left) is covered with a mix of leaves and pine needles to help it overwinter with minimal weed growth.

6. Other leaves and small yard litter can be raked along borders and fence lines (pictured at right) to discourage weed growth and provide habitat and cover for small critters like yard-friendly insects (including some moth and butterfly species as eggs or pupae) and invertebrates like snails, skinks, salamanders and earthworms.

7. Limbs and other larger brush, sticks and cones can be made into a brush pile (pictured at left) that can provide shelter to other critters like turtles, toads, other reptiles and small animals like chipmunks.

8. Another thing you can do is make “Leaf Mold” to use in your gardens. Leaf mold is made when leaves break down over time by the action of fungi normally found in the environment. Just pile the leaves or mulched leaves up in a contained area of your yard, (pictured at right) keep moist and let nature do the rest.

9. In 6 to 12 months, the leaves will break down into something that looks similar to compost, (pictured at left) but without quite as many nutrients.

10. The leaf mold can be worked into garden plots (pictured at right) to give loftier structure to compacted soil and help increase water retention. It also helps loosen up compacted or heavier clay soils.

11. Or you can just use it as mulch around trees. (Pictured at left.) Less weed whacking!

12. Finally, you can actually bag your leaves or mulched leaves for use later. (Pictured at right.) You can even collect bagged leaves from your neighbors or others. For example, you may want to use them when making your own compost. Just keep the bags upside down to keep the water out when it rains until you’re ready to use them.

13. Here (pictured at left) I’ve piled up bagged leaves into a 3-foot high by 10-foot diameter enclosure. The pumpkins were left over from Halloween and provided by a local church. The pumpkins were added in layers and then broken up, (pictured at right) covered with more leaves, then more pumpkins, etc. In about 6-8 months – compost!

14. Of course, (pictured at right) you can do the same process with leaves and other vegetables and more leaves, etc…

15. …finally covering with cardboard to keep excess rain out. (Pictured at left.) Then the next time you get more vegetables, you can layer as before. I get these leftover vegetables for free from a local food bank, but you can try grocery stores or even collect from your neighbors to add to what you already produce. Remember, fruits and vegetables only! Without mixing, this process usually takes about 6 to 8 months to produce compost. For more on making compost, visit ext.vt.edu and enter “compost” in the search engine for the latest information on making and using compost.


https://resources.ext.vt.edu, publication 430-521: Leave Them Alone: Lawn Leaf Management
https://resources.ext.vt.edu, Resource Number:426-704 (SPES-304P): Using Compost in Your Landscape
https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/70651, For The Birds, Hummingbirds and Butterflies: Creating Inviting Habitats