To read about why fall leaves are so beneficial to wildlife, and how to leave them in your garden without adverse effect, check out this article: Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground.
Once upon a time some newbie garden writer thought it’d be a great idea to encourage people to leave their fall leaves on the ground. Hey, it’s got all the qualities of a great article for the masses; it tells folks what they want to hear (stay in your jammies on Saturday and don’t bother with all that raking!), and it sounds vaguely earth-friendly, which generally goes over well.
The problem with this well-intended advice?
- Fall leaves form a thick mat on the soil, which holds water tightly against perennials’ crowns and causes them to rot. If they don’t rot, then they have trouble getting through that mat of leaves in spring and will come up scraggly and thin.
- If you have a pretty layer of wood chip mulch to prevent weeds or if you are using landscape fabric, once the leaves break down and become compost, you will have a layer of really fantastic compost, i.e. Weed Seed Nurturing Soil Mix, sitting on top of the stuff that’s supposed to be keeping weeds from germinating. Whoops!
- And lastly, matted-down leaves on the lawn or on groundcovers can cause dramatic bare spots in a matter of weeks. In one garden I know of where the natural look is preferred, a drift of leaves killed all of the foliage on the Blue Star Creeper groundcover that was acting as a small-space lawn in just a couple of weeks. Then weeds put up a fight to take the space over while we coddled the Blue Star Creeper back to life!
The one time when leaving your leaves is OK is if you’re growing only shrubs and trees, no perennials, bulbs, groundcovers or lawn, AND you don’t have either wood chip mulch or landscape fabric forming a barrier between the leaves and the soil. The shrubs and trees won’t mind the leaves forming a tight mat on the soil since their stems stay above ground, and the leaves can break down slowly and improve the soil.
So if that’s you, stop reading and get back into your jammies, you’re off raking duty. (Though if you don’t have any mulch down you probably have some weeding to do out there!)
So what are we supposed to do with all those leaves?
In garden beds, rake or use a blower to get leaves into a pile, then shred (more on how to shred leaves below) and compost in a heap till spring, when they’ve broken down enough to make a fine mulch or soil amendment.
You can use them to top-dress beds that don’t yet have wood chip mulch or landscape fabric. Caveat – the fluffy texture of leaves as mulch can harbor snails and slugs, so if that’s an issue for you, compost them longer until they no longer resemble leaves, and then mix into the soil to improve it or spread a thin layer on your lawn.
Leaves are my favorite compost-making material because the resulting compost is so soft to the touch and seems to aerate soil well.
If you have leaves on your lawn, you have a couple options – either shred the dickens out of them by going over them with your mower a couple times, then leave them on the lawn, OR rake/ blow them into a pile as with your garden beds and make some great compost out of them. You can use your mower to pick them up instead of raking if you like.
On hard surfaces like paths and decks, obviously you’ll need to get the leaves off as quickly as possible to avoid slipping and sliding.
About shredding leaves:
I used to think that since I didn’t have a shredder I couldn’t shred my leaves, and they’d simply take for-ev-er to compost down. Then I realized – duh, I have my mower with a bag attachment! If you want to shred the leaves before composting so they’ll be broken down to use in spring, just scatter them on your lawn and mow over them. Rinse and repeat till they are well and truly shredded.
If you have neither lawn nor shredder, no biggie. Your whole leaves will take a bit longer to break down, but if you mix them up with your shovel every so often they’ll still compost fine.
Other resources on mulching:
Tips on using your mower to shred leaves, plus the intriguing fact that raking leaves uses up 240 calories per hour! (Ben and Jerry, here I come!)
How to rake without pain or strain: tips to avoid repetitive stress injury from raking. (Anne Asher with some tips on how to rake in a body-friendly way)