Fall Leaves: To Leave or Not to Leave

Deciduous trees begin to change leaf color in early fall, before losing leaves in late fall to winter.

Deciduous trees begin to change leaf color in early fall, before losing leaves in late fall to winter.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Fall brings that time of year when leaf color can be its most vibrant! However, as time marches on towards the winter season, leaves quickly begin to fall to the ground and create a blanket of opportunity. Opportunity, you say. Yes, indeed.

Each autumn homeowners rake leaves into piles, bag them up, and haul them away. But wait a minute; leaves have a lot of potential. Leaves can provide a storehouse of protection, cover, and nutrient recycling. Leaves are just waiting to be put to good use! Below are a few simple, yet beneficial ways leaves may be used.

Leaves begin to collect in all sorts of locations in the landscape.

Leaves begin to collect in all sorts of locations in the landscape.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

An abundance of leaves may blanket the lawn.

An abundance of leaves may blanket the lawn.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

  1. Use them as a protective mulch. Leaves have good insulating potential when used as an overwintering cover, whether chopped or whole, for fall-planted root crops and perennials. The insulation helps moderate the soil temperatures in more severe winter seasons. For more information, see HGIC 1604, Mulch.
  2. Use them in compost for use as a soil amendment. Leaves are rich in carbon and combine nicely with nitrogen-rich grass clipping to create a balanced compost. Leaf compost adds organic matter as well as many essential nutrients. For more information, see the blog Composting Tips.
  3. Use them as a barrier to stop emerging weeds in the spring. Chopped or whole leaves provide a ground cover to smother out potential spring weeds around established shrubs in the landscape. Along with weed suppression, the layer of leaves provides retention of soil moisture. Leaves do not contain weed seeds, so they are safe to use in the struggle against spreading new weeds. For more information, see HGIC 1253, Controlling Weeds By Cultivating & Mulching.
  4. Use them as leaf mold. Leaf mold is a special case of leaf mulch. Producing leaf mold involves collecting shredded or whole leaves in containers, such as plastic bags or wire mesh cages, keeping the leaves moist to allow fungi to colonize, and turning the leaf material every so often to achieve partial decomposition. Applied on top or turned into the soil, the leaf mold will become a “super rich” soil conditioner. For more information, see HGIC 1655, Soil Conditioning- Establishing a Successful Gardening Foundation.
  5. Use them as leaves. We often think it is necessary to remove leaves, but the easiest use of leaves is just to leave them in the landscape. In the lawn, you may want to chop them coarsely with a lawnmower to prevent them from smothering the turfgrass. In landscape beds, the leaves will decompose on their own when left to nature. This is nutrient cycling at its best. In the spring, when temperatures begin to rise and the leaves have broken down, they will have turned into organic matter and released nutrients to enrich the soil.
  6. Use them as winter cover for pollinators and other invertebrates. It is simple; leaves are not litter and can provide a protective habitat for valuable insects. Combining leaves with standing dead plant material provides terrific overwintering sites. For more information, see The Xerces Society for Invertebrate ConservationLeave the Leaves! (xerces.org/2017/10/06/leave-the-leaves/)
  7. Use them as a playground. Go ahead- rake up a big pile of leaves and jump right in. For child or adult, a pile of leaves is fun. Even your furry dog friends will have a blast!
  8. Use them in crafts. Limitless opportunities are available for uses of leaves in crafts- try a few. One simple idea is to use leaves to make leaf confetti. Simply collect sturdy dry leaves and using a hole punch, make confetti circles. The best part is, its biodegradable!

Collect a variety of colored leaves to make leaf confetti.

Collect a variety of colored leaves to make leaf confetti.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

A hole punch and fall leaves makes a beautiful array of colorful, biodegradable confetti.

A hole punch and fall leaves makes a beautiful array of colorful, biodegradable confetti.
LayLa Burgess, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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