Weed & Water Wednesday: Processing Dead Leaves into Mulch, Compost and Leaf Mold

Reader Contribution by Jessica Kellner

If your home is anything like mine, it’s buried in a pile of leaves at this time of year. Those transforming shades of yellow and red that make autumn so lovely end up as a mountain of dry, dead debris that threatens to ourtake our homes! What should you do with all that former foliage? A few eco-friendly suggestions are below. Keep in mind, for nearly all of these ideas, it’s easiest to deal with leaves after they’ve been shredded. You can shred leaves by running the lawn mower over them a few times, or with a specialized tool. Some leaf vacuums make short work of collecting leaves and also include a shredder. Ask your local hardware store. Shredding is important because shredded leaves more readily become compost or mulch and biodegrade more quickly.

1. Compost it: Dead leaves are extremely valuable. Compost Guide says the leaves of one shade tree equal about $50 in plant food. As they explain, because trees are deep-rooted, they suck up loads of minerals, many of which end up in leaves. So don’t curse those leaves! Take advantage of them! Composting leaves isn’t hard, but it does require a little know-how. If you simply pile up your leaves and stick them somewhere to decompose, it will work (see No. 3 below), but the process will move extremely slowly. To increase the speed and your likelihood of compost success, you need to do start by grinding or shredding leaves, as mentioned above. Next, add a compost material that is high in nitrogen to your leaves. Leaves are low-nitrogen, which is why they break down slowly. First, put down 6 inches of shredded leaves, then add a couple inches of high-nitrogen addition such as grass clippings, animal (not pet) manure, green weeds or old garden vines. Continue layering, ending with leaves on top. Periodically (every few weeks) turn your pile. You want the pile to remain slightly moist. If it becomes too dry, simply add a little water.

2. Use leaves as mulch: Dead leaves make an excellent mulch for your garden or yard. Mulch helps slow weed growth in spring, and offers a layer of protection for perennial plants. If you live in an area that does not face severe winters, laying thick mulch around garden plants may help extend their productivity, especially with those partial to cool temperatures such as kale, salad greens, Brussels sprouts, potatoes and onions. The key to successfully using leaves as mulch is in grinding or shredding them. Pack a thick layer of mulch over garden plants, and spread up to 3/4-inch over your entire yard.

3. Create leaf mold: Leaf mold is similar to composted leaves, but it doesn’t yield as nutritious of an end result. However, it also requires virtually no work. Create an enclosure for your leaves out of a length of wire fencing, logs, stones, boards, etc. Shredding leaves before you put them in the enclosure will help create the leaf mold, but it is not necessary. Shredded or not, thoroughly wet leaves, then place them in the containment area. By spring, they will be matted down enough to serve as an excellent mulch. If you let leaves break down for several years, eventually they will become a dark, rich potting soil. Read more about leaf mold.

4. Make animal bedding: If you have chickens, other poultry or other livestock, you can mix your dry leaves in with hay or straw for use as bedding.

5. Go municipal: Many of us feel guilty bagging dried leaves for disposal, assuming the material ends up going to landfill, where it’s less likely to naturally decompose. This is a valid concern, but in many municipalities, yard waste is processed into compost for use by farmers or community gardens. Contact your community’s waste services department to find out how they process garden waste. If it becomes compost gardeners use, bag away!