Every fall many yard owners are faced with exactly the same problem: if deciduous trees, bushes and other shrubbery grow in your yard or on a public road which your yard lines, you are confronted with mountains of autumn foliage. While the foliage can stay on the ground in wooded areas it does have to be removed from paths and lawn. But does the foliage really need to be disposed or can the leaves be used elsewhere in the garden? In this blog article you can find out what other usage your autumn foliage may have.
Complete removal of autumn foliage?
Before we look at other usages of fall leaves, we clarify where you should remove the leaves and where you can keep it.
To a certain extent removing foliage is a matter of taste: Some prefer to remove every single leave for a clean appearance, others prefer a natural look. Strictly speaking, it is not necessary to remove autumn foliage everywhere. Underneath trees and bushes – as in nature – it is a good idea to keep at least some foliage. The piles of leaves provide safety and foraging opportunities for beneficial animals such as ladybugs, earwigs and worms. Furthermore, it provides a natural fertilizer and is useful as a soil conditioner.
You should clean some areas in your yard of foliage though. While wet leaves can become a slipping hazard on your paths and deck, they will also create yellow patches on your lawn. A few single leaves will not damage your lawn. However we recommend to remove piles of leaves that keep sunlight from reaching the grass.
So how to remove the fall leaves in the most efficient way? Working with a traditional rake does the job and is relaxing to some people. However it is not very effective for big yards. Another option is to use a snow shovel to make large piles of leaves.
The easiest option are motorized blowers and vacuums. However, many leaf blowers are rather loud and noise pollution can be an issue for smaller animals and certainly for your neighbors. Therefor you should check the noise range of the blower before making a purchase. Battery operated leaf blowers, as for example the 40V blowers from Ryobi or the 20V tools from Dewalt, generate less noise than the classic gas powered tools. Tip: some blowers and vacuums have an integrated shredder which significantly reduces the volume of the foliage and allows for it to decompose much faster.
Beneficial usage of autumn foliage in your yard
Having assessed where autumn foliage should be removed and where it can stay, we will now look into possible applications for the leaves.
- Mulch: leaves are great mulch material, which will keep your soil from drying out and even adding valuable long-term nourishment. A decent layer of mulch will strengthen soil life and benefit plant health.
- Garden bed coverage in Winter: dry leaves protect delicate plants from the cold and ground frost during the winter season.
- Composting foliage: you can make a great compost for shrubs, copses and seedling cultivation purely from fall leaves. Although, you will need a little patience for this.
- Foliage as compost addition: autumn leaves are so called “brown materials” or “browns” which are carbon-rich. For a healthy “hot” rotting compost you will also need to add “green material” such as grass clippings.
- Bedding for chicken coop: dried foliage is a somewhat unusual, yet decent alternative for bedding in your chicken coop.
- Winter home for hedgehogs & Co.: piles of autumn foliage provides a warm winter home for hedgehogs who can enjoy their hibernation without being disturbed.
Following this short overview of possible usages for your foliage, we will take a closer look at the specifics and what you need to be aware of in the next six subsections.
Using autumn foliage as mulch
The leaves of deciduous trees contain many valuable nutriens which the tree takes deep out of the soil vial its root-system. Trees are natures nutrient pump, whose foliage not only protects the soil from the cold during autumn and winter but also adds nutrients to the soil while decomposition. During the damp winter months most of the foliage will decompose, leaving very little residue in spring. It fertilizes and structures the soil of your yard, retains moisture and promotes a healthy soil life.
You can use these advantages of autumn foliage for the rest of your garden. Especially shrubs flourish under the natural protection of the mulch layer which also discourages unwanted vegetation.
We define mulch as an organic or inorganic material used for floor covering to discourage unwanted vegetation and decrease evaporation. Organic material such as straw, foliage, woodchips, i.a. decomposes throughout the seasons and enriches the soil with additional nutrients. This results in an active and healthy soil life and a fine-crumb loose structure which is perfect for retaining moisture. The mulch layer also ensures that less water will evaporate throughout the day which translates directly into less watering for you. The layer of mulch also protects the ground from direct sunlight, balancing the temperature and ensuring the ground does not heat up too much throughout the day, or loose to much heat throughout the night. Throughout the cold winter months, the layer of mulch will protect the soil from frost.
Garden bed coverage in Winter
Garden beds with delicate and frost-susceptible plants can be protected with autumn foliage. Should you be worried about strong winds scattering your protective layer of leaves, simply add some twigs on to of your foliage. Underneath trees and shrubs, you can plant so called “ground cover” plants. These plants are indeciduous ground cover plants which will allow for the falling autumn foliage to disappear under its green leaves. These plans create an optimal decomposition environment which will leave no foliage residue come spring.
Another alternative for using autumn foliage as mulch to protect your yard soil from drying out and adding valuable nutrients is by making a so called “leaf compost” which we will look at closer in the next subsection.
Leaf compost utilization
You can make great compost from your autumn foliage in your backyard. As the leaves are devoid of unwanted seeds or roots, compost made from foliage is perfect for plant propagation but also shrubs benefit from the compost as soil conditioners.
This compost – also called leaf mould – is quite easy to produce, but does take a little patience. Seen as pure leaf compost is carbon rich the leaves decay slowly. This can take, depending on the type of leaf, up to two years. Especially oak and walnut foliage contains high amounts of tannins and takes particularly long to decay.
Ideally, you pile the leaves in a cylinder with a diameter of approx. 3 feet, made from wire mesh, like chicken or aviary mesh. Afterwards you place this construct directly on the ground and secure it with bamboo rods. Alternatively, you can produce the compost in large sturdy sacks with holes.
To accelerate the composting process, the leaves should be shredded before being piled. Running a lawnmower back and forth over the leaves does the job. Alternatively, some leaf blowers and vacuums have a shredder included. To speed up the process you can add the following “ingredients” to your compost pile:
- Major compost/ compost starter
- Compost worms
- Algae lime to elevate the pH value
- Nitrogenous materials such as lawn clippings, horn shavings, etc.
It is beneficial to add easily compostable leaves from orchards, linden trees and birch trees to the bottom layer of the compost heap. After a thin layer you should add mature compost with worms to accelerate the decomposition process. Now layer all “ingredients” and water the compost heap if the leaves are not damp enough. In the next few months you should keep an eye on the compost and water it if it looks dry.
Foliage as compost addition
Even for your “regular“ compost heap in your backyard, your autumn foliage can be beneficial. Leaves are known as “brown material”, which is rich in carbon. In a correctly made hot rotting compost pile, nitrogen rich (green) materials such as lawn clippings, fresh garden and kitchen waste as well as coffee grounds need to be mixed with brown material in order to avoid putrefaction. Tip: experienced gardeners keep pure piles of leaves at the ready to add in layers to green material whenever needed.
Foliage bedding for the chicken coop
An unusual yet surprisingly good alternative for bedding in you chicken coop is dry foliage and pine needles. It is crucial for the bedding to be dry, because your chickens won’t thank you for damp feet. Autumn foliage together with kitchen and garden waste is also suitable in a pile throughout the chicken pen. Chickens enjoy scratching in a slowly composting heap, looking for edible materials. The constant movement created by the chickens makes for a perfect compost which you can us in your backyard.
Winter hibernation for hedgehogs & Co.
While it used to be very common to find heaps of autumn foliage in backyards throughout autumn and winter, nowadays it is a rarer sight. These “clean” gardens do not offer many habitats or hibernation options for valuable creepy-crawlies and smaller animals. Should you choose to give these critters a home in your garden, the best option is to create a leaf pile with deadwood in a quiet corner of your backyard.
Any leaf pile in a windless, shady corner will fast become a habitat for multiple insects, amphibians and mammals such as hedgehogs and shrews. If the leaf pile stays put until spring it can give warmth and safety throughout winter. To keep hedgehog accommodations nice and dry you can add brushwood and other materials to the leaf pile to create a well-insulated home.