Don’t Throw Away Dead Leaves From Your Lawn (Do This Instead)

Don’t Throw Away Dead Leaves From Your Lawn (Do This Instead)
Photo: Photographee.eu, Shutterstock

Raking leaves is a universally dreaded annual task, and for good reason — it’s hard, physical work that creates more hard, physical work. Once you’re done raking, you still have to find a way to get rid of all those leaves.

Except that you don’t have to get rid of them at all. In fact, you shouldn’t. Dead leaves are nature’s mulch; their whole job is to protect and nurture living plants and the soil they grow in. Sure, you can look up your municipality’s leaf and yard-waste pickup schedule — but you can also hoard all that leafy goodness for yourself. Here’s how.

Leave leaves alone

If your yard is covered with dead leaves, there’s a good chance you have deciduous trees and/or shrubs around — which means you can probably leave those leaves right where they are. As a 2014 blog post from the National Wildlife Foundation explains, leaves are basically free mulch. They protect root systems, keep moisture levels consistent, and fertilize the soil as they break down. Plus, a layer of dead leaves effectively keeps weeds from taking root. Why throw that all away?

Of course, a blanket of dead leaves could attract unwanted attention from your HOA, either before or after it suffocates your lawn. You have two options in this situation: Rake the leaves off the main area of your lawn and move them onto garden beds, or turn them into proper mulch.

Shred ‘em and spread ‘em

Whole dead leaves aren’t the most practical form of mulch. They’re thick and heavy, yet somehow also prone to blowing away, and they take a very long time to break down. But shredded dead leaves are perfect. Smaller pieces decompose faster; plus, the finer texture is easy to spread and less likely to blow around, so your mulch stays where you want it.

There are a few ways to shred dead leaves. The National Wildlife Foundation blog recommends dumping the leaves into a big trash can and using hedge clippers to chop them up into smaller pieces; a wheelbarrow or big bucket would probably work, too. You can also use your lawnmower. The Bob Vila website has a detailed guide to the process, but the secret is to adjust your mower to the highest setting and take off the bag that catches clippings. Run over the leaves a few times until the pieces are roughly dime-sized, rake them up, and spread them around wherever they’re needed.

If you find yourself with leftovers, don’t automatically dispose of them. Shredded leaves are great for compost, but you can also use them to make even better mulch for next year.

Make your own leaf mould

Leaf mould is a specific type of mulch made from partially decomposed shredded leaves. According to a Gardeners.com blog post on DIY leaf mould, it holds up to 500 times its weight in water, which means it’s fantastic for regulating soil moisture. You can’t get it in stores, though — if you want leaf mould, you have to make it yourself.

Making your own leaf mould isn’t hard, but it is a minimum year-long commitment. Besides shredded leaves, you’ll need somewhere to put a pile of them for at least a year, plus a tarp or something similar to cover it so it doesn’t dry out. If you have a lot of leaves — per Gardeners.com, at least enough for a pile six feet square and five feet tall, which is about 25 lawn bags’ worth — you can just pile them up, either on their own or in some kind of enclosure. For smaller hauls, try the trash bag method: Fill black plastic trash bags with shredded leaves, sprinkle in some water, and then poke some holes in the bag for air circulation.

Whichever method you choose, keep your pile nice and moist so it actually breaks down. This time next year, you should have all the mulch you need — and the know-how to make another batch.

Log in to comment on this story!