Shredded Leaves are Garden Gold
Raking leaves may not be your favorite thing to do on a beautiful fall day. But rather than thinking of it as a chore, think of it as harvesting! For gardeners, shredded leaves are the season’s most valuable crop. Read on to learn how you can use this free and abundant resource to improve the health and beauty of your garden.
Nature’s Most Effective Soil Builder
Autumn leaves are a rich source of organic matter and valuable trace minerals that trees mine from deep in the soil. When mixed into your garden, they provide food for earthworms and other beneficial organisms. Adding leaves to heavy soils improves aeration. In sandy soils, they help retain moisture.
Shredded leaves also make an attractive, weed-suppressing mulch for garden beds and landscaped areas. As they gradually decompose, they release nutrients and increase the fertility of the soil. In cold climates, shredded leaves can also be used to insulate tender plants from temperature extremes.
The Value of Shredding
Leaves that are chopped up into pieces have many more edges than whole leaves. This makes it easier for microbes to do the work of converting the leaves into humus and readily-available plant nutrients. Shredded leaves are less likely to become matted together into tight, water-shedding clumps. They are also easier to store because they take up less than half as much space.
How to Shred Leaves
Leaf shredders work great, so if you have one (or access to one) by all means, use it. But you can also get the job done with a mulching mower and bag attachment. Simply mow over the leaves with the bagger attached.
If you want the leaves to be shredded more finely, mow the area once without the bagger and then a second time with the attachment. To save time as you work, empty the leaves into a cart or onto a large tarp that can be dragged over to the storage area.
How to Store and Use Shredded Leaves
You can store your shredded leaves in large plastic trash bags or simply corral them inside a wire fence or other structure. Easier yet, is to just make a big pile and cover it with a tarp. Once you have a ready supply of shredded leaves, you’ll find dozens of ways to use them. Here are a few suggestions:
• Insulate tender plants from extreme cold. Cover garlic, roses and other tender perennials with a 4 to 6″ layer of shredded leaves. Wait to apply mulch until after the ground begins to freeze. This gives plants time to enter their natural winter dormancy.
• Enrich the soil. Mix shredded leaves into the soil to enrich new or renovated garden beds. Doing this in the fall allows time for the leaves to start decaying. See note about nitrogen below.
• Rev-up your compost pile. Leaves are rich in carbon. In a compost pile, they help to balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio (kitchen scraps are high in nitrogen). They also absorb excess moisture, helping to keep the pile from becoming soggy and smelly.
• Suppress weeds. Don’t use all your leaves in the fall. Save plenty for spring mulching. Once they sit around for a few months, they will be transformed into a premium, weed inhibiting mulch for covering the soil around perennials, shade plants, vegetables and fruits.
• Make leaf mold. Over time, shredded leaves naturally break down into a soft, finely-textured substance called leaf mold. Leaf mold is high in calcium and magnesium and retains three to five times its weight in water. It can be added to potting soil, used to top-dress potted plants, or be used as a super-premium mulch. To hurry the process along, just add some nitrogen to the leaves before leaving them sit for the winter.
TIP: Why to Add Nitrogen to Shredded Leaves
Converting shredded leaves into crumbly, nutrient-rich soil is the job of bacteria and other beneficial organisms. To do their work, these microbes require nitrogen as an energy source. If there’s no other readily source of nitrogen, the microbes will draw it from the surrounding soil. This can deprive neighboring plants of the nitrogen they need for healthy growth.
To avoid this problem, simply mix some nitrogen fertilizer into the shredded leaves. Doing this in the fall will hurry the decomposition process. If you prefer to wait until spring, you can incorporate an all-purpose 10-5-5 granular fertilizer, or an organic source of nitrogen such as alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, fish meal, composted chicken manure, bat guano or fish emulsion. Another way to incorporate nitrogen is to mix grass clippings into the shredded leaves.
When adding nitrogen to leaves or directly to your garden, follow package instructions and don’t overdo it. More nitrogen is not always a good thing!
A Free Resource That’s Too Valuable to Waste
Once you begin finding ways to put shredded leaves to work in your yard and garden, you may wish you had more of them! Fortunately, most people are only too happy to give them away. You may even find a local landscaper who is willing to drop off the shredded leaves they collect from clients.
If you are gifted leaves that are whole rather than shredded, you have a of couple options. Run them through a leaf shredder, if you have one. If the leaves are pre-bagged, just add water and a little nitrogen and then stow them away for 6-12 months. By spring, the leaves will be partially decomposed and ready to use. If you have the room, just create a chicken wire enclosure and let them degrade naturally.
Want to learn more about the value of leaves? Check out this website, put together by some master gardeners in NY state: Leave Leaves Alone
For other fall gardening ideas, you may also be interested in reading: Fall Checklist for Flower Gardens.