Using Leaf Mulch in the Garden

Raking fall leaves is a time-honored tradition and essential if you want to have a neat yard. However, most leaves get kicked to the curb after they are gathered. They get piled up and bagged, burned, vacuumed by the leaf truck or disposed of in any number of other ways. All of these methods get rid of the leaves, but they also rob you and your garden of many benefits.

Instead of being thrown away, leaves can be put to work for you and your garden in many wonderful ways. Shredded leaves will work best for most of these uses because they break down more quickly than whole ones and don't form a dense, water-resistant mat as whole leaves do. Most people also believe that shredded leaves are the prettier choice for use in their gardens. Leaves can be shredded with a lawn mower or a leaf blower that has a reverse and shred setting. If shredding leaves sounds like too much work, just use them whole. They decompose more slowly and look more natural, and your garden will still thank you.

Here are some great ways to use fall leaves in your organic garden.

  1. Protect plants from cold weather. Every gardener has vegetable and ornamental plants that teeter on the brink of fatal frost damage year after year. Up their chances of survival with a cozy blanket of leaves. Just make sure to avoid piling leaf mulch (or any kind of mulch for that matter) directly up against tree trunks or plant stems. Doing so will keep them dry and rot-free. Keep your mulch layer relatively shallow when mulching bulbs and other dormant plants. Two to three inches of mulch will work just fine. Bury your plants any deeper and they may rot under their leafy blanket.

  2. Make garden paths with them. This is a good use for whole leaves. In this case, it's fine to pile them as deep as you'd like, because you goal is to create a weed-free path by keeping light from reaching those weed seeds. Smother away.

  3. Make compost with them. Leaves can be used as a carbon-rich ingredient in compost or can be used by themselves to create a special leaf compost, known as leaf mold, that is rich in beneficial fungi and well-known for its excellent water holding capacity. Eliot Coleman, the Maine gardening guru, claims that leaf mold is "like a heath tonic" for members of the cabbage and carrot plant families.

  4. Add them directly to your soil. Increase soil organic matter, encourage good soil structure and increase biological activity. Leaves are a great soil enhancer that can be tilled in or left on top of the soil in order to help control weeds and protect growing plants. They make a great mulch for crops such as beets, cabbage, kale and parsley . A couple of inches of leaf mulch can help keep those veggies growing strong well into winter. As an added bonus, those of us who need mulch for use in our spring and summer gardens can choose to store leaf mulch in a dry place or under a tarp for later use.

  5. Fill in holes and low spots with them. You know that low spot in your garden where you always seem to turn your ankle or that little dip between your garden rows that turns into a giant puddle every time it rains? Fill it in with gobs of leaves. Whole leaves work really well for this use because they decompose relatively slowly.

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