Keep Your Garden Healthy Using Leaves

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Raking leaves

I think the team here at GrowVeg has done a great job providing solid information on ways to use leaves in your garden. Ben’s blog on Making Leaf Mould - Gardener's Gold (2011) opened a lively dialogue on leaves, to which I added my experiences in Using Leaves in the Vegetable Garden (2013). Our tips (plus many more) made it into the 7 Ways to Use Leaves in Your Garden video, which may be the best five minutes you will ever spend as you contemplate what to do with this year’s crop of leaves.

Having these blocks of information in place gives a garden writer a false sense of security, as we assume that everyone has read everything and therefore knows all they need to know. Then you get out in the world, and see evidence to the contrary: mountains of discarded leaves mixed with plastic that have become the responsibility of municipal composting facilities.

The yard waste composting facility I visited in Manassas, Virginia, was doing a stellar job of turning unwanted leaves into compost, but the thing that haunted me was how many people regarded bags and bags of leaves as trash. Clearly, educational efforts should continue.

Potatoes mulched with leaves

Using Leaf Mould on Your Soil

We do our best to stay on top of reader questions, but over the years several worthy ones have slipped by, such as whether or not leaves will make the soil too acidic. This could happen if you shredded large amounts of newly fallen leaves and mixed the tiny pieces directly into soil. However, if you use whole or chopped leaves as mulch, or allow your leaves to weather outdoors through winter, or let the leaves rot completely before using them, your soil pH is not likely to change.

Another common question concerns timing, or when leaves are ready to be used as mulch, or turned under and mixed with garden soil. The choice is yours, but I love using weathered leaves to mulch my potatoes, and the natural order of things involves turning under the leaves (or what is left of them) after the potatoes are harvested. Another way is to simply wait until most of the leaves have rotted, leaving behind mostly leaf veins, which take a little longer.

Leaf Mulch and Slugs

There is no doubt that leaf piles and leaf mulches provide good habitat for slugs, the most common garden pest many climates. Consider this comment: "I'm concerned about mulching with leaves here in rainy Seattle, where wet leaves are slug havens (we have to clear leaves from anywhere near our garden, as the slugs hide out underneath them). Is there a way to mulch with leaves in a rainy climate, without encouraging snails and slugs?"

Chickens scratching in leaves

No, but then there is no such thing as a slug-deterring mulch. In slug-prone environments, it is better to forego mulching, and either compost your leaves or manage them in a separate pile to produce leaf mould. Then, use the compost or leaf mould as soil amendments. Should there be slug eggs present in the compost or leaf mould, allowing it to dry in the sun for a few days will kill most of them. This is also a great job for chickens, who happily remove slugs and other creatures from leaf piles.

Speaking of chickens, last year I used bags of dry leaves as my main winter bedding material in the chicken coop, and we all loved it. The chickens enjoyed scratching through the leaves, just as they do outdoors, and their fancy footwork transformed crunchy dry leaves into a shredded, de-slugged version ready for the compost pile. I saved the plastic bags I used to collect the leaves, and plan to reuse them for several years.

Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"I have a lot of trees that drop keys (seeds) such as the Manitoba Maple at the same time as the leaves. I am weary of using this leaf/key mix as mulch as Manitoba Maples are hardy and will grow anywhere, in anything. What should I do with this stuff? The keys will start to grow before the leaves have a chance to breakdown. Thanx"
April Blois on Thursday 1 October 2015
"April: That's certainly unusual to me because our maples lose their "whirly birds" in the spring, so they don't get mixed in with the leaves in autumn. If your tree's seeds are anything like mine, though, they sprout quickly and can be pulled up easily by hand when they are seedlings. If your leaves are in a pile, just check the pile every week and pluck out the seedlings as they come up. You can just lay them on top of the leaf pile; they should wither up and die on their own if you've taken the seedling by its roots. They then become part of the compost. "
Deb M. on Friday 2 October 2015
"So it sounds like the leaves rot and then the ground is ready for spring/summer. Is this right? What do I do for fall garden? Just add a layer of Miracle Grow? Also interested in growing green onions now. Starting from seeds. Do I hv a chance of success?"
Marjorie Christen on Saturday 3 October 2015
"I want to protect my perennials in my flower bed over the winter. I will also be planting a new miniature rose. What is better for the mulch, fallen leaves or straw? Each one seems to lay differently around the plant . "
Mark H on Saturday 3 October 2015
"Marjorie, unless you live in the southern hemisphere, this is not a good time to fertilize. Many people start various types of onions from seed indoors in winter, but the seedlings are not set out until spring....Mark, if you chop leaves just a little with your mower, they will lay nicely when used as winter mulch."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 5 October 2015
"Thanks, I am now a subscriber to your youtube. Very informative! We are renting a house surrounded by dry, hot, clay earth with lots of kikoejoe grass and since autumn started in South Africa I'm going to bag the neighbour's tree leaves and our grass cuttings (separately) for when we move to our more permanent house. "
Helizna on Friday 6 May 2016
"Here in So. California, fall is our best growing season, however it is also the time of Santa Ana winds from the inland desert and humidity in the single digits. You’ve all seen video of our horrendous wildfires. Fallen (and here, anyway) dry leaves are not a boon, but a tremendous fire hazard. For us, they should be contained in compost bins or containers until broken down. Not good to have a beautifully leaf mulched garden that goes up in a blazing explosion. "
Cathryn Oltman on Saturday 2 November 2019

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