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This time of year, if you have a yard with trees, it can feel like no matter how often you rake, there is always a layer of leaves covering your lawn within a blink of the eye.  The leaves can look stunning and give you a sense of nostalgia and coziness, but still, the one-going chore of raking them up becomes a reality.

Then comes the question of what to do with all of these leaves.  Well, there are in fact a number of ways you can make the most of this wonderful resource.

If you don’t have a yard full of leaves, ask around to see if neighbors or friends might be willing to share theirs.  If you offer to rake them up in exchange for taking them away, it becomes a win-win.

Don’t think of leaf raking as a chore.  See it as the gathering of a natural free gift that can do wonders in your garden.

1.  Make Compost

Fall leaves are the garden’s gold.  A good compost mix needs a mix of green and brown material.  The green material is rich in nitrogen while the brown material is rich in carbon. Layer your compost bin with a generous layer of leaves then a layer of green matter such as grass clipping, garden weeds, or kitchen scraps.  Do these layers over and over again until your bin is full.

Too much green material can make your compost wet, sludgy and stinky.  Too much brown material can make your pile too dry and inactive.  Keep an eye on your compost and amend it accordingly.  Make your compost in the autumn and leave it be.  Come spring, you will have a lovely soil amendment that will make your plants and the worms super happy.

2.  Mulch your Garden Beds

It is usual for this time of year to have put many of your garden beds to bed for the winter.  The summer annuals are all gone leaving empty spaces in the landscape, though, there are perhaps some winter greens and hardy herbs hanging on in there.  Leaves that you rake up from your yard make wonderful, and quite attractive, mulch for all of these beds.

Covering your empty beds and those beds with perennials or winter greens still in them in a good layer of leaves will make the soil, plants, and the microorganisms below them very happy.   The leaves help to protect the soil from washing away, they will slowly break down and feed the soil as well as build it, and they can help to keep less hardy plants a little warmer on frosty nights.

3.  Insulate Tender Plants

If you live in a place that has glorious long summers and cold winters, you are lucky enough to be able to have plants around that thrive only in the warm weather.  However, come winter, you know that unless you bring those babies inside, they just aren’t going to make it to spring.

This is where leaves come in.  Some plants that would be perennial in warmer climates but die in frosts can actually be saved by a really heavy mulching of leaves.  Cut tender plants back to the ground and cover their roots in a thick layer of leaves.  Come spring, you will hopefully see your plant sprouting back.

Similarly, you can pack leaves around potted plants to protect their roots from deep frost.

4.  Feed Your Lawn

Leaves are extremely rich in nutrients.  If you hate them being all over your lawn causing a mat that kills your grass and invites disease why not use those very leaves as fertilizer for your lawn?

Take your lawnmower and mow over them cutting them into tiny pieces.  The leaves will work their way between the grass and decompose into the soil making the worms and microorganisms pretty pleased.

5.  Leave Leaves for the Animals

We love leaves, but so do the critters.  Many pollinators rely on leaf matter for warmth and protection during harsh winters. Animals such as chipmunks, box turtles, toads, and shrews also use leaf litter as their primary habitat.  All this is to say, don’t take everything.  Leave natural forest floors alone and consider, if you have the space, just making a big pile of leaves in in the corner of your yard for the furry and creepy crawly amongst us.

Leaves to Avoid

As with any kind of foraging, be aware of where you are sourcing your leaves.  As leaves fall from trees, they are less likely to have been contaminated by chemicals in the way that lawns often are.  However, don’t go raking leaves from heavily trafficked areas or industrial sites just in case.

Some leaves contain chemicals that actually inhibit the growth of other plants.  This phenomenon is called allelopathy.  Trees such as black walnut are allelopathic so using an abundance of leaves from these trees would be quite detrimental. Try to avoid using these leaves as much as possible.

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