One of Mother Nature’s very best gifts comes every fall, as leaves drop from trees. For the small price of collecting the leaves and depositing them in your garden beds as mulch, the returns are high.
Raking and blowing leaves is a dreaded task for many of us, but those leaves are the best amendment for gardens and landscape beds — and a fantastic addition to compost piles.
Of the nutrients that trees take out of the soil through their roots, over half is stored in the leaves, which are also high in stored carbon, taken from the air. As the leaves decompose in your garden, the nutrients and organic matter will make soil more fertile and improve the soil structure for optimal drainage and more.
The trick to getting the most benefit from leaves the fastest is to shred whole leaves into smaller pieces.
Some simple tools you may already have can work well for this.
You can mow over whole leaves when dry using a lawnmower with a bagging attachment.
Electric leaf blowers often have a reverse function that comes with the tube and bagging attachment which finely chops the leaves as they’re vacuumed up.
You can also use a standard string trimmer. While it does get the job done, it can be rather cumbersome to manipulate the trimmer head and definitely leads to arm fatigue if shredding more than just a few bags.
One product created specifically for chopping leaves that uses the string trimmer concept is called a leaf shredder. After hearing rave reviews from a close gardening friend, and reading the online reviews, I was curious enough to order one for myself and put it through the paces.
I’m happy to report this was money well spent. For a modest investment of about $150 and a few hundred bags of leaves to test with, this is my new favorite method for shredding them.
The electric shredding unit is mounted above a sturdy stand. The leaves are safely fed from the top into the hopper, and the string trimmer chops them down and blows them into a collection bag. Overall, it’s the fastest, neatest, most consistent, and most enjoyable method I’ve tried.
Shredded leaves are easy to work with when applying mulch to beds. And once shredded, leaves will decompose much faster into rich organic matter known as humus.
All you need is about a 2-inch layer of leaf mulch to suppress weeds, prevent compaction, retain water, and insulate soil from severe temperature changes. Spread by hand, or with a rake or blower.
If you have an abundance of leaves, you can store them whole or shredded in a pile, bin or what I call a leaf corral and wet them. In time, funguses will break the leaves down into what is often referred to as leaf mold, which is simply semi-composted leaves. Leaf mold makes for a very effective organic mulch and highly beneficial soil amendment.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
Episode 26: Using Leaves as Mulch & Compost (and Why Leaves Change Color & Shed)
Episode 110: Why Mulch Matters in Every Garden: What You Need to Know
joegardener blog: How to Use Fall Leaves in the Garden – and Why You Should
joegardenerTV YouTube: Why Leaves Change Color in Fall
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Seed Temperature Chart
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
Corona® Tools – Video sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, and Exmark. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.
0 Responses to “How to Use Leaves as Garden Mulch”
Thanks for this great article – I’m excited to take advantage of all the leaves in my yard this year! I am wondering if adding shredded leaves to the top of my raised beds will tie up nitrogen? I have 4 raised beds and some areas will be empty but others will have fall crops that I will keep going as long as possible. Is it okay to add shredded leaves around the plants I still have growing? Should I add an organic nitrogen source as the same time as the leaves? My plan was to cover the shredded leaves with a layer of compost to keep them from blowing away. Thank you for your help!
Hi Lauren. Thanks for the good words. Leaves are the best! Adding leaves to the top of your bed do not tie up nitrogen. It’s only when you incorporate them INTO the soil that this will occur. You don’t need to add extra nitrogen to the leaves to supplement what you think you might be losing (assuming nitrogen is being depleted). But a nitrogen source will help the leaves breakdown faster if that’s what you want, and it may be good to supplement whatever you’re growing. But the only good way to know that is with a soil test.
The plant to cover the leaves with compost is fine. And you may discover that the shredded leaves when applied about 2″ think, tends to stay in place better than you think. But you may be in a windier area than me. Good luck and thanks for your comment.
This is great! Do you think you could use that leaf shredder for anything else, like breaking kitchen compost down into bits so it will compost faster?Thanks!
I don’t think it’s really designed for anything other than leaves. Kitchen scraps are so random, plus they’re 90% water on average (or whatever the real number). The point is, unlike leaves that breakdown much slower, you don’t need to put your kitchen scraps through a shredder. They break down within days or weeks at the most, especially if you just chop them up first. It’s a good thought but just not necessary.
Thanks Lauren for the question – I was wondering the same thing! Thanks Joe for the answer. I think my problem was I mix them in after using them which caused my plants to stunt and yellow. Adding compost tea and coffee grounds helped a lot. 🙂 Happy gardening!