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Fall Leaves: Six Innovative Ways to Put Them to Work in Your Garden

Mike Gary
Mike Gary
7 min read
Fall Leaves: Six Innovative Ways to Put Them to Work in Your Garden

Summer is on the brink, and the colors of Fall are sneaking into our gardens. At the very least, our trees are starting to show that hint of brown which means Fall leaves will soon cover the landscape.

Fall colors are beautiful, and the leaves have many uses.

While the Autumn season is extremely beautiful, trying to manage the deluge of brightly colored (or brown) foliage can be challenging. Join us as we look at some excellent ways to make Fall leaves work for your garden.

#1 - Compost them

The most logical way to get rid of the drowning wave of Fall leaves is to compost them.

Deciduous trees (those which lose their leaves in the winter) put a lot of time, energy, and nutrients into their leaves. After all, the leaves are responsible for photosynthesis which keeps the tree alive.

Any veteran composter will tell you that, “Your compost heap needs green layers and brown layers.” While this is a simple way of remembering what your compost heap needs, it’s not entirely accurate.

Fall leaves make excellent compost

What your compost heap truly needs is Carbon and Nitrogen. Green foliage, like fresh lawn trimmings, or the branches from your annual pruning of the fruit tree, contains plenty of Nitrogen.

Brown or dead foliage, like Fall leaves, have already released most of their Nitrogen into either the decomposition cycle or back to the plant when they died.

When the colors of Fall start to show, you know that your trees are about to enter their yearly dormancy. Their growth will slow nearly to a halt, and they’ll wait out the cool weather before coming to life in the Spring.

This is the ideal time of year to trim your ornamental and orchard trees. Remember that evergreens like pines and other conifers don’t enter dormancy, so this rule doesn’t apply to them.

Between the trimming of ornamental shrubs, and all the Fall leaves your trees so generously donated, you have all the makings of a decent compost heap. By the time Spring rolls around, you’ll have some lovely fertile compost to put into the bottoms of your garden beds.

Green-Thumb Guidance: If you live in a place with truly Arctic winters, your compost might not take off without some help.

The cold can severely delay and prevent decomposition, so start a small compost heap early, and then add your fall debris to it. Cover it with a dark tarp when the cold weather kicks in, so it can maintain its heat through the winter.

#2 - Use Them as Mulching

Every gardener knows how useful mulching can be. It offers many advantages which include:

  • Protecting bare soil from sun damage and wind erosion.
  • Forming an absorptive layer that helps the ground stay moist.
  • Providing a home for beneficial microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi.
  • Slowly decomposing into a source of Nitrogen and Carbon for your plants.

Fortunately for you, Fall leaves are excellent for mulching with, especially when combined with something like wood chips or straw.

You can choose between collecting all the leaves and then redistributing, or simply raking them into your garden beds and placing them where you want them.

In wet areas, mulching means slugs, so plan to get rid of them.

Green-Thumb Guidance: If you generally have a wet Fall, then mulching may create ideal conditions for pests like slugs to thrive. Consider setting out beer traps or organic snail bait to help compensate for this problem.

#3 - Burn Them to Get Wood Ash

While we’ve already established that Fall leaves can be an excellent source of both Carbon and Nitrogen, you can also convert them into a third resource: Potassium.

Wood ash is loaded with Potassium and Phosphorus.

There’s a reason why this third element sometimes goes by the name Potash. The ash from organic materials like wood or Fall leaves is chock full of Potassium and Phosphorus.

You can either burn small amounts of leaves at a time and use them to feed specific trees, or you can take the more intense approach.

Create one large fire near the end of Autumn, burning all the Fall leaves, and adding any dry branches that you want to get rid of. Let the fire burn down, and allow the ash to cool.

Once you have a pile of cool, white ash, mix it with an equal amount of compost, and use it to feed your trees or garden beds. Feeding trees is an essential part of Fall tree care.

Green-Thumb Guidance: Incinerated leaves and wood are full of Potassium and Phosphorus, but lack other nutrients. For best results, create a blend of the wood ash and another high-quality compost that can help add nutrients.

#4 - Build a Banana Circle

Whether you have an interest in food forests and food sustainability, or not, the permaculture movement has come up with many fantastic concepts and techniques which can be useful in the general garden.

Banana trees are hungry plants and benefit from a feeding circle.

One of those concepts is the creation of berms and swales. A Burm is a ridge, flat piece of land, or incline that determines how water moves. Typically, berms direct water into a specific direction so that the water can flow into a swale.

A swale is a ditch, pool, or depression that captures water or nutrients and distributes it to the surrounding plants.

A banana circle, pawpaw circle, or melon pit is a circular swale that acts as a long-term nutrient-release system.

The concept behind these circles is that you dig a round pit, or swale, with an area of raised soil (a berm) around it. Then, you plant things that need a lot of nutrients, like bananas and melons, in the berm.

Into the swale goes organic waste, like Fall leaves, kitchen scraps, and even dead pets (you probably want to skip that one in Suburbia). The sheer amount of waste leads to rapid decomposition, which creates constant leaching of nutrients into the soil.

You can choose to either cover up the swale with some of the soil you took out of it (if you’re planting hungry plants that don’t live long) or, you can place some kind of cover over the pit, to keep the smell of decomposition in, that will allow you to add more waste now and then.

Green-Thumb Guidance: If you start your banana circles in fall, they’ll be ready for you to plant irises, melons, or other hungry warm-season plants by Spring.

As we all know, bigger roots make bigger fruits, so give your fruit trees and hungry annuals the best.

#5 - Create a Lasagna Garden

Another excellent invention of the sustainability movement, sheet composting, sheet mulching, or lasagna gardening lets you create a compost pile and a garden bed at the same time.

It’s an easy process that’s similar to creating compost, but also different. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Put down a layer of cardboard (old boxes will do, just ensure that you remove any plastic tape, and don’t use glossy or heavily printed boxes)

The cardboard counts as the first brown or carbon layer, but also helps to suppress any weeds that might be lurking in the soil.

  1. Add a green nitrogen layer that consists of plant clippings, lawn cuttings, weeds, seaweed, kelp, or anything along that vein.
  2. Use your fall leaves to add another carbon layer.
  3. Then add more green.
  4. And another brown layer.
  5. Some gardeners like to add a final layer of compost or other finished planting materials, but it’s optional.

If you’re planning on planting perennials like blackberries in your lasagna garden, you can go ahead and put them in. But, only if you added the compost layer, and you didn’t use items like food scraps or manure in your layering.

The safest option is to create your lasagna bed, then let it rot down for a few months (excellent preparation for your Spring planting!). Since the organic material is rotting down in place, it generates plenty of heat and can burn your plant roots.

Green-Thumb Guidance: Ocean plants like seaweed, kelp, and bladderwort contain hundreds of trace minerals that can be invaluable in your lasagna garden. If you live near the ocean, try adding some of these natural wonders to your bed.

#6 - Feed Them to Your Worms

If you have a large enough vermicomposting system, Fall leaves can be an excellent food source for your earthworms.

Carbon is an essential part of vermicomposting, just as in regular composting, so feel free to add a generous helping of Fall foliage to each of your worm bins.

Fall leaves make a good meal for earthworms. We hope that this article has helped you find some excellent uses for the glut of Fall leaves coming your way. Autumn is no miser, and there’s usually plenty to go around, so why not try your hand at more than one gardening tip?

Fall GardenGardening

Mike Gary

Garden Expert