Don’t waste what leaves have to offer gardens, yards

Erin Schanen


The arrival of autumn in my yard is not marked by a date on the calendar. Rather, the official declaration of autumn is dictated by when the majestic maple to the west of the house is full flaming orange. So I know that despite the proliferation of pumpkins everywhere you turn, autumn has not yet arrived, because that maple is just barely starting to show tinges of yellow.

Photos taken exactly one year apart show what we’ve all noticed — this is an unusual autumn. But one thing is certain. Sometime, probably soon, the leaves will turn colors and then they will fall.

And you can bet your pumpkin spice latte that with the falling leaves will come a lot of opinions about what you should do with them. And you’ll probably hear that you should forget about all those leaves and just let them be. Somehow we went from cleaning up and sending every leaf that falls to the landfill, curb or burning pit to never touching a leaf. But there is an important middle ground that’s been lost in the catchy headlines.

The key to making the most of leaves is to shred them. Once shredded they provide rich organic matter as they  break down. They lighten heavy clay soil, serve as great mulch and make an excellent soil amendment that helps microbial activity. Just imagine what a product that promised all that could fetch at the garden center.

But leaves are free, so long as you unlock all that goodness. When they fall on grass, the easiest thing to do is just mulch them up with a mower. Although it may take a few passes, when mulched finely enough they’ll provide great benefits to the soil and, therefore, the lawn.

Managing leaves in garden beds can be trickier because it is onerous to rake them all out, then mulch them, either with the garden shredder or a mower, and then either put them back in the garden as mulch around plants or add to a compost pile.

A simpler approach, albeit one that requires patience and some space, is to make leaf mold. Create a wire cage out of chicken wire or even plastic fencing and just load leaves into it. They will break down over time, creating a material suitable for mulch, or adding to potting mix or soil. This could take a year or more, but you can speed up the process by shredding them and making sure to keep them moist.

Some people achieve the same result by loading leaves into black garage bags with some holes poked in them and just letting them sit.

Whatever you do with leaves, don’t let them form large mats either in the garden or on the grass. It’s a recipe for fungal disease and killing whatever lies beneath it. Some leaves can be helpful especially for overwintering critters in garden beds, but avoid a big pile.

So when the leaves do fall, do something with them. It’s worth it.



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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