Embracing the Season: The Gift of Leaves

It’s that time of year again. Behold! The fall colors, the cozy sweaters… the raking. Ah, yes, raking. Free exercise and quality time in the great outdoors in that glorious fall weather. Truth be told, it can also be quite a chore! But what if you could use your leaves to feed your landscape plants and even provide more habitat for the creatures you have been planting all those natives for?

Nature’s Bounty: The Benefits of Leaf Mulch

Leaves are indeed nature’s mulch. When they fall, they provide many nutrients to the roots of surrounding trees, shrubs, and other plants in the landscape as they decompose. An adequate leaf mulch layer also insulates the soil from cold and heat, thus providing a stable environment for roots, preventing stress to your plants, which means healthier plants. Leaves can even be used as a soil amendment to improve aeration and moisture retention. If you are purchasing yards of mulch every year while simultaneously spending considerable effort raking every year, then it is time to reassess!

Lawn Maintenance: Using Leaves to Your Advantage

Many of you who rake do so for your lawn’s health. It is true that fallen leaves can form an impermeable, impenetrable mat that could potentially suffocate your lawn. However, leaves also have the potential to help your lawn by providing a nitrogen boost and even amend your soil structure. When the top layer of soil heaves as it thaws and freezes in late winter and early spring, leaf fragments work their way naturally into the top layer of the soil. To reap these benefits, shred the leaves and apply a thin layer to your lawn. They will work their way down and begin to decompose, releasing said nutrients and bypassing the need to haul bags to the dump.

The Art of Shredding Leaves

Shredding leaves into smaller bits accelerates their decomposition, providing the nutrients locked in the leaves faster. Shredding also makes the leaf mulch lighter and more airy, allowing water and air to circulate through the layer to the soil below, resulting in healthier root systems. Smaller leaves, such as those of a honeylocust, will work fine without shredding, but for those with maple, basswood, oak, or other large-leafed tree types, taking the extra step of shredding the leaves will yield many of the benefits of wood mulch. Does shredding sound like a deal-breaker? Simply pile up your leaves and use your lawnmower! Spread a healthy layer of shredded leaves (leaf mulch) along foundation beds and garden beds. Use them as mulch around your trees.

When to Use Wood Mulch

One word on this. We still recommend using wood mulch in the mulch ring of newly planted trees as they do benefit more from wood mulch. Wood mulch has higher moisture retention, provides better insulation, and takes longer to decompose, therefore providing more protection and moisture for a tree that is establishing its root system. During a tree’s initial establishment, wood mulch is still king. Older trees, however, benefit enough from simple leaf mulch. Just take a look at a healthy forest! We offer several kinds of wood mulch at our Nursery.

Dealing with Diseased Leaves

One warning: Leaves can carry a myriad of diseases that may affect the other plants in your yard. Be observant. There are, for example, many fungi that can be apparent on leaves such as Tar Spot or Anthracnose. While no one can expect leaves to be perfectly spotless at the end of the season, learn what signs to look for. If there is a certain tree or shrub in your yard that may be infected, then take care to rake those leaves, bag them, and dump them responsibly. Go more in-depth about a few common fungi in your landscape.

Supporting Local Wildlife: Leaves as Habitat

After taking care of the lawn and any landscaping beds, consider leaving a pile of leaves in a quiet corner of the yard as a habitat. Insects and small mammals use leaf litter to overwinter and as a cover from predation. The act of shredding the leaves may indeed damage some insect pupae; if this is something you will want to do, consider putting aside leaves for habitat use before you shred the rest. If you would like to learn more about the ways wildlife uses your landscaping during the winter, check out our article on Winter to Spring Transition.

Embrace Change. Use Leaves as Mulch!

Inspired? Good! Bagging fall leaves is time-consuming and creates unnecessary waste. The time that it takes to shred and spread them is worth it once you know all the benefits that fallen leaves can provide. So, get to raking, and take satisfaction in the fact that this time you won’t only be tidying up your yard, you will also be nourishing it.