Falling Leaves are Great…for the Garden

It’s fall, which means the calendar says September, October and November, but in a gardening sense it also means falling leaves.  Any landscape that is older than 10 years has tree and shrub leaves that detach from the stems and drop to the ground.  They fall on the lawn, onto the garden and into the landscape beds.  If it’s just a few leaves, with lots of green grass showing in-between, then the best approach is to simply use the mulching mower and chew them up, transferring the nutrients and organic matter therein to the turf and reaping the benefits. Several research studies at the University of Nebraska, Michigan State University and Purdue University support this practice.

If, however, the leaves completely cover these areas, the decision for action becomes a matter of leaf depth.  If the depth is an inch or two, the option to rake them out of the landscape beds and into the lawn, then mulch them in is still a good one, as indicated by university research.  If the depth is greater, it’s best to pick them up with a bagging attachment on your mulching mower.  At this point, the option is to dump them into a container and set them at the curb for trash pickup, or to add them to your compost pile.  If you don’t have a compost pile, this is excellent material for starting one, as the brown/green mix, the brown leaves and green grass clippings, are in the best proportion for breakdown into compost aka black gold. 

Compost, whether homemade or purchased at the garden center, is best material for amending heavy clay or sandy soils to make them productive for growing vegetables, flowers, fruit and lawns.  So, don’t think of falling leaves as a bad thing; think of them as a good thing, a true garden resource.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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