Five Great Ways to Use Fall Leaves

November 5, 2023

It’s almost fall in North America, and many folks soon might find themselves laboring for hours raking leaves to the street for pickup or filling paper bag after paper bag with leaves. But, did you know there’s many ways to use your leaves to benefit your property, and easier ways to make them “go away”? Even on a small property, you can make those leaves disappear, feed the soil and plants, and benefit the environment.

Tree leaves are full of important nutrients for trees, lawns, and vegetables–we recommend you keep as many as you can on your property! Here are five ways to make leaves disappear quickly.

1. Rake leaves into piles in out of the way places.

If you have any natural areas, this should be your first step, as the leaves have lots of pollinator eggs attached to them. Not only will you want those butterflies and moths in your garden next year, but birds and small wildlife rely on the larvae and insects nesting in leaf piles for food. Additionally, small critters like chipmunks or salamanders use leaf piles to rest and stay moist and warm. If you’ve ever enjoyed a firefly in the summer or the joy of seeing a fritillary butterfly or a spotted salamander–you can thank a pile of leaves!

2. Use leaves as free mulch around your trees and in gardens.

Simply rake your leaves as mulch rings around your trees, or pile them up in vegetable gardens, under shrub beds, and in flower beds (just keep them away from the bark of trees and shrubs). In the spring, you not only will have a much richer soil, but flowers will emerge healthier and you can plant directly into the nutrient rich leaf mulch! Your trees will appreciate the boost of nutrients they rely on for new growth, and will have roots insulated from the cold of winter and heat of summer.

3. Use a mulching mower or chop with a leaf vacuum if you have too many leaves for your garden.

A mulching mower has multiple blades and will finely chop up leaves into small bits. The smaller the pieces, the faster soil bacteria can break them down. You’ll be amazed at how fast leaves disappear, and just how many leaves can be recycling right back into a lawn! Pro-tip: Use a leaf vacuum to chop up leaves! The leaf vacuum will reduce a pile of leaves into smaller pieces, make a huge pile of leaves into a small pile of finely chopped, nutrient rich clippings that can be used as mulch or compost that will quickly degrade into carbon for your soil.

4. Compost leaves.

Add as many leaves as you can to compost bins or piles, being sure to balance your “browns and greens” to create a good compost pile. You can sometimes speed up a leaf compost pile with a lot of turning, keeping it moist, and by spraying it with homemade compost tea which may speed up the decomposition.

5. Save some! Use them for icy areas or muddy spots, or next summer’s compost.

Now would of thought of saving some leaves? But this can be helpful if you have a dry place to store them. Ever get spots on the driveway where ice won’t go away, or muddy spots under bird feeders or play equipment? Save some leaves in paper bags and use them to handle those pesky spots all winter–they’ll stay autumn fresh in the bags, and help stop your slipping and sliding. Come next summer, when you need dry brown material for your compost bin, all you have to do is reach in to your brown paper bags for some dry leaves from last fall, and voila!

When all else fails, there’s more ways to use them, so keep researching–consider making potato or squash growing bins, or generating leaf mold for your neighbor’s to give for free (that stuff is expensive!). Before you place leaves at the curb for yard waste collection, check if anyone in the neighborhood needs extra. Some people even get leaves from neighbors for their own vegetable gardens or shrub beds, since they don’t have enough from their own yard.

Now pat yourself on the back for some great environmental stewardship, saving money and municipal taxes, and enjoy next summer’s fireflies!



17 comments on "Five Great Ways to Use Fall Leaves"

  1. Debbie Brynes says:

    Thank you! I have been trying to discuss this with neighbors. They look at me like I have grown a second head.
    Also, if you feel you must get rid if your leaves, DONT BLOW THEM!

    1. Marianne Carliez says:

      Indeed, those leaf blowers are a source of pollution: noise! Only professional gardeners and people with back issues should use them. The rest of us should just use a good old-fashioned rake (with help from our kids). 😁

  2. Nina says:

    We have a lot of leaves -from trees like large oaks, sycamores and maple. I would like to leave some of them, spread out on a corner slope in our side yard. This is fenced, so it wouldn’t impact neighbors yards, The leaves would be there from November until next May and would would stay there under the snow. Would they just matt up, or would they start to naturally decompose, and add to the soil in that area?
    Any advice/comments/ suggestions would be appreciated!

    1. Mary Travaglini says:

      Hi Nina–it depends on the soil and climate conditions on how fast leaves will decompose. They may indeed mat up, or they may break down really fast–but ultimately yes, they will turn into soil. If you need to speed up how fast they decompose, you can go out and fluff them up with a rake and the air circulation can help stop them from matting. Great that you have the big spot to use them!

    2. Neil Willens says:

      They will begin to decompose, but one 9 months isn’t really enough for that to be complete. If shredded or mulched into smaller pieces, it happens faster. If you cover a portion of your lawn under about 3 or more inches of leaves which will compact when wet, you can expect the grass beneath to die because it has suffocated and received no sun in the intervening months. But that area of soil will be a bit richer for when you replant grass or use it as a garden. That’s been my experience. I learned not to leave leaves resting against a fence against which the wind had blown them. When raked in the spring, birds that sit on the fence will drop seeds from all kind of vegetation they eat onto that fertile area and grow up against or through the fence. I once thought it was pretty having a row of trees grow along the back fence. When it became unruly and unmanageable years later, it cost thousands of dollars to have them all removed, plus I had to have a new 120 foot long split rail fence replaced with a welded metal mesh so the dog couldn’t get out, as the trees had torn apart the fence.

    3. Joel R Albert says:

      Nina…don’t leave the, on the slope, they will smother grass which I assume is there. Just run over what you spread out with a lawn mower. TGhey will decompose quickly and then act as natural fertilizer, weed suppressant and soil enrichment.

  3. Nina says:

    Thank you!

  4. Bill Buslee says:

    … and get fined by your HOA. Unless the county is prepared to make restitution to on our behalf to HOAs, it should but out. It generally takes about 2 years for leaves to decompose “naturally.” So you’ll have them around to “enjoy” next year and the following year. And wet leaves can ice over and your left with more icey spots. So you better have your home owners insurance, and “umbrella” policies are up to date for when those municipal workers, and meter readers come and slip on the ice in your sidewalk, driveway or lawn,

    So sure, I want my lawn to look crappy, it goes along w/ the weeds that we can’t get rid of because we can’t use any weed killer in this peoples republic. Montgomery County Maryland – Home to crappy lawns, dangerous walkways and lower property values.

    Do we still have to shovel our walkways?

    1. Mary Travaglini says:

      Bill, we hope you read the content in the article–none of it suggests leaving the leaves on your pavement, or matted on a lawn. These are all suggestions for ways to keep them on a property in a safe and ecologically sound way, and of course if there are still extras that cannot be used these ways, they can be sent to yard trim for composting. Cheers.

  5. David Kieffer says:

    I like the first four recommendations. The fifth one, not so much.

  6. Cynthia Thurston says:

    Love these suggestions, especially number 5 — I always keep three or four lawn bags full of leaves until the next spring when I dig out my raised beds. I put the leaves in and put the dirt back on top, mixed with some coir or peat. I never need to use any fertilizers for my vegetables or flowers with all that organic material. We have completely done away with grass in our yard – it’s all vegetables, fruits, fruit trees, flowers, and walkways – so we sometimes ask for extra leaves or grass clippings from our neighbors – and we compost almost all our weeds and yard waste.

  7. Sallie Lowenstein says:

    I had never thought about the pollinator eggs. That’s a really interesting point. I’d love to leave all my leaves, but they are mainly dogwood leaves and dogwoods are being affected by a disease that is transmitted through the soil. The leaves are affected by this fungus, and I’ve been told you want to rake so that the disease is not transmitted when the leaves decompose.

  8. Marc Brenman says:

    Some of the recommendations in the linked document are poor. A) it can take a very long time for a big pile of leaves to decompose in a compost pile. B) Piling up the leaves in your yard will kill the grass underneath. C) Using leaves on snow or ice is a very poor idea, as they will be slippery. D) Arborists don’t recommend piling leaves around the base of trees; provides home for bugs that attack trees.

    1. Mary Travaglini says:

      Marc–appreciate the comments. The article recommends using leaves as mulch under a tree, but not piling up against the bark of the tree. Arborists do recommend the use of leaves as mulch. We also don’t recommend in the article to pile them on grass. And we don’t go into details on how to compost in this article, but if the compost is managed correctly, many leaves can decompose in a healthy compost pile.

  9. Marc Brenman says:

    The photographs do indeed show leaves piled on grass, and piled high against tree trunks. This is key: “if the compost is managed correctly.” In the ordinary household compost pile, many leaves take a very long time to decompose.

  10. denise lionetti says:

    I’m interested in receiving the email newsletters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *