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Using Leaves in the Garden

What’s the best way to use leaves in the garden?

Leaves are one of the main ingredients of the dark, rich humus that covers the forest floor — nature’s compost. A gardener can replicate that humus by mixing carbon-rich leaves with nitrogen-rich manure or grass clippings to make compost.Garden Leaves

Maintaining an active compost pile in winter can be a challenge, however. An easier alternative is to use leaves in the garden in fall, says Abigail Maynard, associate agricultural scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, who has studied the use of leaves as a garden soil amendment for more than 10 years. 

If possible, shred your leaves first with a chipper-shredder or mower; the smaller pieces will break down faster. Spread the chopped leaf mulch over your garden soil, then incorporate it with a tiller or spade. “By spring, almost all of the chopped leaves will be completely decomposed,” Maynard says.

Maynard’s research has shown that amending soil with maple or oak leaves alone probably won’t boost yields the way adding finished compost does, but she says using leaves in the garden does add organic matter to the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure, holds nutrients and moisture that are released slowly to plants, and provides food for beneficial soil organisms.

Maynard suggests adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as aged manure, in spring. (Nitrogen added in fall could leach away by spring.)

Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Boost your soil’s organic matter by using leaves in the garden.

Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .

11/14/2013 4:50:04 PM

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10/17/2013 12:43:44 PM

I have two stories about using leaves in the garden. No. 1: I worked at a botanic garden for many years. Of course we had tons of leaves in the fall and for about three or four years we piled all our raked leaves on one particular area because it was the next spot to be planted. In the autumn the leaves were piled high (about two feet) and in the spring the leaves were flat. Over the course of the growing season the leaves disappeared until the next autumn when they were piled up again. When we went to plant that area which ended up being a demonstration vegetable garden you hardly needed a trowel or shovel. The soil was so soft you could dig with your hands. It was wonderful. No. 2: In my own yard I raked leaves into a tarp expecting to drag it to the back compost pile but winter got here first. Anyway, next spring I pulled back the tarp and the leaves were mostly composted already. So to experiment I got some kitchen scraps and put them in the 'tarp composter'. I kept adding to it and also examining to see how much was composted from the last batch. Worked well and I have lots of composted leaves to put on my flower beds. Excuse me please, I have to go do that now.