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Fall Leaves for Your Garden 

It’s now that time of year where days are getting shorter and cooler, and the garden is starting to wane, showing its signs of wanting to be put to rest. For many gardeners, this is an enjoyable time as they look back and see what they have grown or even how they will continue to have fresh produce for the next few months. As gardeners, we should always be aware of the next crop that is going in. For us, we plant garlic in the fall. For others, the next crop may be the first crop in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Either way, preparing the garden for winter correctly will save you time in the spring when it is time to plant.

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Wheel barrel with a rake leaning against it in a yard filled with fall leaves.

Fall Leaves for Your Garden

Leaves are free and abundant, and they are one of the greatest resources available during the fall. Whether saving them over the winter to make leaf compost or applying them directly over the soil, leaves are very nutrient-dense and beneficial for your garden. Tree roots go deep into the earth, and all of those nutrients circulate through the tree and into the leaves, which enhances them and makes them exceedingly beneficial to your soil. We take the leaves from our property and neighbors’ properties (with their permission) and mulch them. We then apply about 2 feet of this leaf mulch over the top of the garden bed. Sometimes, due to time restraints, we do not mulch the leaves and amend the soil by applying them whole.

For many gardeners, leaves aren’t the only thing they put over their beds before winter. Many will put their own homemade compost or purchase compost to top dress their beds. Topdressing is simply layering an inch or two of compost over the bed to help add nutrients to the existing soil over winter. If using this method, the leaf mulch can be applied after.

Wheel barrel filled with fall leaves for the garden.

Avoid adding black walnut, poison ivy, oak, and sumac leaves to the garden as they are not generally good for the soil. These can however be added to the compost but they may take longer to break down compared to other leaves. Many people will choose to mulch them before mixing them in with the other leaves. For example, we mostly have maple leaves available for our garden. Maple trees are susceptible to maple tar spot, a fungus. However, that disease will not have any adverse effect on your soil or garden, which means they are safe to use in your composting and mulching efforts.

When putting leaves over the garden bed, we normally pile the leaves 2 to 3 feet high. These leaves break down quickly over winter and will leave you with a mulched garden in the spring. Leaves are a great, easy, and free resource to enhance your soil and aid in putting your garden to bed for the winter. They also make a terrific fall garden mulch option.


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Fall leaves and a wheel barrow with text, "Repurposing fall leaves for the garden"
Wheel-barrel full of fall leaves with text, l"How to use fall leaves"

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    • Shredding the leaves helps them breakdown faster and if you are using them as a mulch it makes it easier for water to seep through to be taken up by the soil. You also want some airflow so you don’t have issues with too much-trapped moisture or mold. If you are leaving the leaves to breakdown over winter and you aren’t growing anything in that area then you can leave them whole.

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