Mulching with Leaves | An Easy Guide

Fall leaves can be used in your garden as mulch either shredded or whole. Shredded leaves can be put on garden beds 2-3 inches thick. Whole fall leaves can be put on garden beds thinly or mixed with other mulches such as bark chips or compost. This will make sure that water can still reach plant roots.

Putting shredded leaves in the garden

Shredded leaves work best as a mulch in open garden beds with flowers or trees. Leaves form a dense mulch which will break down over time adding nutrients to the soil. A small amount of nitrogen will be absorbed from the soil by bacteria as they break down the leaves. Adding a small amount of pelleted chicken manure or composted cow manure to the leaf mulch will help to add extra nitrogen back into the soil.

The bacteria will then release the nitrogen back into the soil over time as the leaves are broken down making it available for the plants. Leaf mulch will also encourage worms to come to the surface to eat the soil bacteria and leaves adding air to the soil.

For large open garden beds, the small amount of nitrogen taken through the leaf break down process up won’t affect the plants. It is best not to use fall leaves for vegetables as they generally need more nitrogen.

How to use leaves for mulch

Dry fall leaves are a light mulch and work best when combined with other mulch types. Shredding the leaves with a mower or leaf blower will help to break down the leaves. You can mix them with lawn clippings, bark mulch or compost to make a great mulch mix for garden beds.

Lawn clippings and leaves can be mixed together to form a mulch.

Mix fall leaves with straw for a mulch that will hold water in the soil. The leaves will break down over a period of 6-12 months making them a great short term mulch to build the soil. Each fall you will be able to find new leaves and add them to your garden beds to replace those from previous years.

How to collect leaves for mulch

The simplest way to collect leaves for mulch is to use a rake to move them directly onto nearby garden beds. Move the leaves neatly under the tree they dropped from for an easy way to clean up the area and to mulch the tree. Trees naturally make their own mulch by dropping leaves and you can help them along by raking them under their root zone or into your garden bed.

Leaves can also be collected for mulch by using the sucking function on a leaf blower. Many leaf blowers come with a collection bag and a mulching function so use it to suck up your leaves and turn it into mulch. The leaves can be emptied from the bag straight onto garden beds or placed in your compost bin.

Another way to collect leaves is to rake them into a compost bag or bin. A compost bag is a great way to collect leaves because it is light and flexible. You can also rake and shovel leaves into a compost bin using a mulch shovel. These are wide, light shovels perfect for collecting large amounts of leaves quickly.

My compost bag full of leaves for mulch.

How thick to apply leaf mulch

Apply shredded leaf mulch around 2-3 inches thick at the base of shrubs or trees. Keep the mulch away from the plant base to avoid any moisture sticking close the trunk or stem and causing rot.

If you are using unshredded leaves, lay them 1-2 inches thick or mix them with another mulch type. Fall leaves can matt together when they are whole and if laid too thick can stop water from reaching the roots of the plants.  

Using whole leaves as mulch

If the fall leaves are small you can easily rake these straight from the tree onto the garden bed. Water them in as you lay them on the soil to keep them in place. I like to scatter a handful of pelleted chicken manure on top to add extra nutrients and encourage more soil microbes to gather to break down the leaves.

Large leaves work best as mulch when shredded or turned into compost.

What to do with shredded leaves in the garden

There are lots of great uses for shredded leaves in your home garden.

Benefits of shredded leaves for mulching the soil

One benefit of shredded leaves as mulch for the soil is that they add a range of nutrients including a balanced mix of carbon and nitrogen. Shredded leaves on their own will form a rich compost perfect for your soil. They can also be collected into a compost bin or wire cage to break down into leaf mold or compost.

Another benefit of using shredded leaves as mulch is that the soil microbes and worms will break it down aerating the soil and releasing the nutrients. Shredded leaves help to keep moisture in the soil meaning that you will need water less. They will also block weeds of light and help to prevent them from sprouting through.

How to shred leaves for mulch

The two best ways to shred leaves for mulch are with a mower or with a leaf blower. To shred leaves with a mower, simply lay the leaves over an area of your lawn. Run over the leaves with your lawn mower and they will easily be shredded. You could use a catcher to make the process of picking them up easier.

The next method to shred leaves is to use a leaf blower on the suction setting. Many leaf blowers come with a mulching function and a catching bag. Simply attach the bag and suck the leaves up. They will be shredded in the process and captured in the bag.

Trees that produce the best mulch leaves

Any tree that drops its leaves in the winter will be good for collecting for mulch. My favorite trees include the Acer family or Maple tree family. Their leaves vary in size but dry out quickly and are easy to collect. These trees drop their leaves in a short amount of time so they will gather together and be easy to pick up with a rake or mulch shovel.

Here is a list of trees that will drop their leaves in Fall that make great leaf mulch:

  • Liquidamber
  • Ginko Biloba
  • Claret Ash
  • Chinese Tallow Tree
  • Crabapple

The best time to collect leaves for mulch

The best time to collect leaves to shred for mulch is around half way through fall. This will give enough time for the leaves to change color from green to yellow, orange or red and then for the tree to reabsorb most of the nutrition. The leaves will be ready to fall once the weather has cooled for at least a few weeks.

The time it takes for trees drop their leaves will be different each year. It will depend on how quickly the weather cools, changing winds and rain. If you live in a temperate zone, the leaves will take longer to change their color and drop to the ground but when they do it will be worth it.

Mulching with leaves – Summary

Leaves are becoming my favorite mulch for open flower beds and a great way to make compost. They break down quickly, are organic and add vital nutrients back into my soil. Leaves are also a free mulch that will need to be cleaned up anyway. Make the most of fall leaves and collect them to mulch your garden.

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