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This Fall, Leave the Leaves

Garden Fallen Leaves

Four Reasons Leaves Will Benefit Your Garden

If less yard work doesn’t sound good enough already, maybe this will convince you that leaving the leaves is worth a try!

1. Leaves are Garden Gold

Leaves, a common component of compost, are a fantastic source of nutrients and material for building healthy soil! That’s why they’re known as ‘garden gold’.

If you allow leaves to decompose on top of your garden beds or lawn over winter, then mix them into the soil come spring, you’ll notice an improvement in the water drainage/retention balance of your soil and the overall health of your plants.

2. The Perfect Garden Blanket

Ever lost a plant to a harsh winter or whacky spring temperature fluctuations? Leaves are the perfect insulating blanket to protect your perennial plants from extreme cold and the damages of alternating freezing and thawing temperatures.

Winter Leaf Mulch for Flowers
3. Habitat for Backyard Biodiversity

You might not notice it when you’re raking, but fallen leaves are an important habitat and feeding ground for a multitude of microorganisms, insects and wildlife.

Leaves provide winter shelters for beneficial insects and amphibians such as salamanders, snails, worms, toads, moths and butterfly pupae.

Birds also forage leaves for seeds, berries and insects to help them survive winters when food is scarce.

The benefits of leaves go all the way down to soil microbes who feed on the leaves and thereby improve garden soil quality.

Especially in cities where habitat loss is so prolific, providing a safe-haven in your yard can make a real difference for native insect and animal populations.

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4. Spring Mulch

Can you believe that doing less fall yard work can actually save you some weed-pulling in the spring? It’s almost too good to be true, but it is! Come springtime, any leaves that haven’t decomposed can be distributed around the garden as a weed-suppressing mulch.

Tips for Success

If you want to keep things simple, just leave your leaves be and call it day. There are, however, a few steps you can take to make the most of your leaves.

And for those of you who enjoy fall yard work, you can make this process as labor intensive as you like by raking leaves into piles and then chopping them to bits. Read below for more on that.

Chop Leaves Into Bits

Leaf fragments decompose much faster than whole leaves, plus they are less likely to get blown into neighbouring yards.

Leaf bits

Run your lawn mower across the leaves to chop them into little pieces, and do a few extra passes for an ultra fine chop. Alternatively, collect leaves into a large container and chop them up with your weed whacker, like you’d use an immersion blender to blend soup!

Mowing Leaves
Help Leaves Stay Put

If you’re concerned about your leaves blowing into neighbouring yards or want leaves to stay live in a particular location there are several simple and effective measures you can take to make that happen.

  1. Chop leaves into bits (mentioned above)
  2. Wet the leaves with a hose
  3. Toss a tarp over the leaves
  4. Create a leaf mold pile (discussed below)

You may also wish to inform your neighbours why you aren’t raking your leaves this year. They’ll understand that it isn’t out of laziness, and maybe they will even join in!

Watering Leaves to Prevent Blowing
Create a Leaf Mold Pile

A leaf mold pile is pretty much like a compost pile, but with one ingredient: wet leaves. If left to sit for a year, watered slightly and stirred periodically, this leaf pile will turn into that beloved ‘garden gold’ and can be used as a nutritious amendment to garden soil.

A little chicken wire cage, wooden box, or plastic bag with holes (for air circulation) are all acceptable methods for containing your leaves. Pile the leaves in, wet them and then stir the leaves one to two times a month. Come Spring you’ll have some garden gold at the bottom of the leaf pile!

A leaf mold pile is perfect if you don’t want leaves all over your yard, or if you have too many leaves covering your garden (more on that below). You can find complete instructions for making a leaf mold in this article.

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A Banquet for Birds

Just as with leaves, you can benefit birds even more by doing even less. If you can hold back on cutting down stocks and flowerheads of perennial plants, or if you can leave the trimmings in your yard, you will be providing birds even more food over the winter. The seed heads of coneflowers, black eyed-Susans and sunflowers can provide nutritious meals for birds in need. Plus, just like with leaves, flower stocks provide insect habitat for beneficial insects (who also happen to be beneficial bird snacks).

Save dried flower heads

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Have Too Many Leaves?

Yes, a thick blanket of leaves will suppress grass growth and perhaps some weaker plants in the Spring. We recommend a leaf layer one to two inches thick. Save extra leaves for use as mulch next spring and summer, or add extra leaves to your compost or leaf mold pile.

Are Diseased Leaves Okay to Leave?

If your tree is dropping diseased leaves, your best bet is to remove them and place them into the garbage. The fungi on the leaves generally don’t pose a significant threat to your garden — so don’t fret if you miss some — but the less it proliferates, the better.

Maple Leaf Tar Spot
Will it Be a Mess in Spring?

A light leaf cleaning probably awaits you come Spring, but remember that you saved yourself time and effort in the fall! In spring you may wish to:

  1. Mix mostly decomposed leaves into garden soil
  2. Rake up remaining leaves on your lawn and redistribute them to mulch your garden
  3. If you left stems on your perennial flowers (like hydrangeas) cut them back in early spring.
Want more leaves than your trees provide?

Put up a “leaves wanted” sign and neighbours will happily drop off bags of leaves!

Do You Love Birds?

Interested in more ways to support birds in your garden? Check out these tips on How to Attract Beneficial Birds.

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