Fall is the most glorious, and rejuvenating, season! Once green leaves reveal their true crimson, gold and copper colors, the silver-lined clouds fill the sky, and warm beverages are welcome once more. Not only is fall rejuvenating to humans, but this season is one of the most important for nutrient cycles in our natural world.
My neighbor justified his lack of fall yard work by saying one simple, yet insightful thing: “Leaves wouldn’t fall off the trees if they weren’t supposed to!” I could not agree more, but oftentimes human society misunderstands Mother Nature’s intentions.
Why do leaves fall from trees, anyway? No, it isn’t to put you to work, collecting and bagging leaves and clearing gutters, there is more at play. Each fall in deciduous forests, trees prepare for winter. With less sunlight to absorb, trees drop their leaves and go dormant until spring arrives. These precious leaves are Mother Nature’s opportunity to return very important organic matter to her soil, creating habitat and a nutrient-rich layer of insulation for the frigid winter to come.
Simply put, leaves fall to the ground to become part of the ground! When we rake leaves into piles and put them in bags on the side of the road destined for the landfill, we are missing out on one heck of a free opportunity…and messing with Mother Nature’s seasonal nutrient cycling. Oh, humans!
So, I’ve convinced you to use your leaves to your advantage instead of kicking them to the curb, but what are the options? After you create a giant leaf pile and have some fun (this is required), there are many options out there. Mix and match these 5 uses for fall leaves that will give you the most bang for your buck!
#1: Improve soil structure and content.
Leaf matter adds necessary air, carbon and moisture retention to all soil types, from heavy clay to dry sandy soils. Leaves also contain twice the mineral content of soil amendments like manure and attract beneficial organisms that will help your garden grow.
#2: Create leaf mold.
Instead of adding leaves as brown material to your compost, you can simply rake leaves into a big pile, shred them by running them over with the lawn mower and wait until spring. Let nature do its thing and soon you’ll have a dark, sweet-smelling soil conditioner that is an exceptional soil amendment!
#3: Protect and store root vegetables.
The insolation properties of leaves are priceless. Cold-hardy vegetables and root crops like kale, leeks, carrots and beets can be covered up with leaves and will allow them to survive the winter and have a jumpstart on spring. There is nothing more delicious than an early spring carrot! You can also store harvested root vegetables in a cool, humid space between layers of freshly fallen leaves.
#4: Leave leaves for beneficial wildlife.
We aren’t the only species on Earth that benefit from leaves; in fact, we do not depend on leaves to survive the winter like some of our neighborhood wildlife. Fallen leaves provide essential winter cover for some of the most important wildlife in the vegetable garden—pollinators! Bees, moths, butterflies and spiders need leaves to protect them from cold weather and predators. Native queen bumblebees burrow below the soil’s surface to hibernate for the winter and many species of moth and butterfly spend the winter as a chrysalis or cocoon disguised as dry leaves!
#5: Mow into lawn.
While we should all be taking steps toward minimizing our manicured lawn space and transitioning toward a more ecologically productive habitat, leaves can also be used as a free and natural turf fertilizer. Research shows that lawns benefit from a thin layer of leaves. Instead of bagging, engage the mulching feature on your lawn mower and set the blade to 3” high. Mow once a week while leaves are actively falling to naturally fertilize in preparation for spring!
No matter what you choose to do with your leaves this fall, keep cost-saving, nutrient-cycling and Mother Nature in mind!