If you are growing tired of raking leaves this fall and think the only good place for them to be is on the curb, you may be throwing away a resource rather than an asset that can be working for you. Whether you have a garden, compost pile, or even just a lawn, those leaves can be turned into valuable soil enhancing organic matter.
Rather than raking, running over leaves with your lawn mower and breaking them down into smaller pieces, they can be directly recycled back onto your lawn. A mulching blade on the mower will speed this process, but a standard blade will do fine as well. For larger leaves, such as sycamore, a few passes might be needed to get them finely shredded. It is important to pulverize the leaves so that they break down quickly. A fall application of nitrogen fertilizer, about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, will also help speed up the decomposition process as well as benefit the grass.
It may be getting late to work these leaves into the garden, but it is never too late to start a compost pile for next year, especially if you mix them with a nitrogen source. Assuming you don’t have any grass or other green trimmings left to mix in with the leaves, you can still add a dose of commercial fertilizer or dry cow, horse, sheep, or poultry manure. The nitrogen is needed by the microorganisms that break down the carbon in plant materials. Add a sprinkling of soil to introduce these microorganisms and add a little water to moisten. The compost pile will begin to heat up as the materials break down. You will need to stir the pile occasionally to add air and allow it to heat uniformly. Compost is ready to add back into the garden when it looks uniformly dark and crumbly. The finished product will improve soil aeration, moisture retention, drainage, and soil nutrient holding capacities.
Last but not least, shredded leaves can be used as a winter mulch to protect tender perennials through the coming harsh weather. Shredding the leaves will help prevent them from packing down as they get wet and smothering the plants that they are supposed to protect. To provide winter protection, apply a 3-to 6-inch layer of shredded leaves over the top of tender perennials after several hard freezes. The goal of winter mulch is to keep plants dormant through the winter, so it must be applied after the ground is cold and plants are fully dormant. The timing of application will vary from year to year with the weather, but most years will be appropriate sometime between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.