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When and How to Mulch with Leaves

Fall leaves are a source of beauty and frustration for many homeowners. Why? Well, fall leaves quickly turn into fallen leaves. And once autumn leaves hit the ground, homeowners have a choice to make. Leave them where they are, rake them up, or turn them into something useful. If you've spent previous years raking whole leaves into piles to be taken away as yard waste, we're here to offer you a better solution. Turn those whole leaves into shredded leaves, and use them as leaf mulch!

What many homeowners view as a nuisance, many gardeners view as valuable organic material. Shredded leaves, or leaf mulch, has a long list of applications and benefits. From helping to retain soil moisture and prevent soil erosion, to helping to add valuable nutrients back into your garden soil, there's a lot you can gain from turning that leaf pile into a pile of organic matter, ready for your flower beds.

What is leaf mulch?

If you've only ever raked your leaves, you've probably never heard of leaf mulch before. Put simply leaf mulch is mulch that is made from shredded leaves and often is mixed with other organic matter such as grass clippings. Unlike mulch made from other materials such as wood chips, leaf mulch will not stick around forever.

In fact, compared to a lot of other organic material, leaves decompose faster. Come spring, the layer of shredded leaves you left in winter should have completely disappeared into the ground below, leaving beneficial organisms behind. Why?

Well, as leaves break down, they improve the quality of the ground beneath them, and contribute to healthy soil in your garden beds. The leaf mulch acts as a nitrogen rich fertilizer. And unlike the pricey stuff you buy at your local nursery, shredded leaves are completely free to anyone who has deciduous trees in their yard!

The Benefits of Mulching Leaves

Leaf mulch has a long list of many benefits for both plants and soil in your yard. Sometimes referred to as leaf litter mulch, for the simple way they are spread, this quick and easy style of fertilizing makes a big difference. Here are just a few of the benefits of leaf mulch:

Regulate Soil Temperatures

Imagine spreading leaf litter mulch as putting a winter jacket over your garden. Just as you may wrap delicate rose bushes or young planting against cold weather, shredded leaves act as an insulator between your soil and the cold air. It actually works to regulate soil temperatures!

Spreading leaf mulch keeps the soil below warmer during winter months. When spread in the summertime, it can work to keep your garden cooler. Either way, it protects your plants and their roots from exposure to the elements.

Decreases Reliance on Fertilizers

If you've been relying heavily on store bought fertilizers, then you know how expensive it can be to continue to purchase chemicals to help treat your soil. Enter leaf mulch! Nothing is more affordable than a DIY, all natural solution.

As leaves decompose into the soil, they improve soil fertility naturally. This means you can take a break from your store bought fertilizers.

Retains Moisture

If your area of the country is prone to spells of drought, you're probably looking for a way to protect your soil from drying out. If you find yourself watering your garden a little too often, taking the time to mulch leaves can help.

Protected from the sun and air, soil evaporation will happen less quickly, keeping your garden moisture for longer, and lessening watering frequency. This is great for areas with looser, drier ground, as this type of coverage can help sandy soils retain moisture.

Suppresses Weed Growth

Want to suppress weeds in your garden? We do too. Using leaves as mulch can help. Like wood mulch or stone mulch, leaves act as a suppressant against unwanted plant growth such as weeds.

Spreading leaf litter will inhibit plant growth in the areas of coverage, without affecting the plants that you do want. A win-win situation in our books!

Reduce Soil Erosion

Last but not least, leaf mulch can even help to reduce erosion in your yard. Mulch acts as a barrier against the elements. This means wind and rain are less likely to take their toll, helping to keep unwanted erosion at bay.

There are even more uses and benefits of leaf mulch, including helping to reduce soil compaction, improve soil structure, and improve air circulation through heavy soils.

How to Make Leaf Mulch

So you know there are all these great benefits to using leaves as mulch. But how do you actually make it? Luckily, the process to create mulch is pretty simple, and requires minimal equipment.

All you'll need to make basic leaf mulch is a leaf blower or lawn mower with a bagging attachment, plastic trash bags, and layer (not pile!) of fresh autumn leaves.

Once you have accumulated a fair amount of leaves in your yard, use your lawn mower as you normally would. The blades will shred leaves, as well as pick up fresh grass cuttings from the yard below. Make sure you have a bag attached to your mower in order to collect your bounty. Some leaf blowers can be used on a vacuum setting with a similar bag attached.

Older mowers may not have the capability to attach a bag, or may not be able to break up leaves effectively. You can also purchase a mulching mower or machine designed specifically to mulch your tree leaves if you are dealing with a particularly thick layer of leaves on your lawn.

Once full, you can transfer the newly made leaf mulch into a plastic bag for use around your yard, in vegetable beds, and in your flower boxes and garden. Simply rake any debris that is left behind and either shred manually, or add to your compost pile (more on this later!).

This is a quick, painless process that takes only a little more time than it would to mow your lawn on an average day.

How To Mulch with Leaves

Once all the leaves in your yard have been mulched, you can move on to using them. There are several ways you can use your mulch. From use around trees and shrubs, to adding to your garden, your plants and yard will thank you.

Trees and Shrubs

Spread a thick layer of mulch around the base of trees or shrubs. A four to five inch layer will help to keep roots warm, and help your plants survive a cold winter.

Rose Bushes

If you already cover your rose bushes in the colder months, go one step further. Use leaf mulch to insulate the base during winter, removing the layer once spring comes.

Flower Beds and Vegetable Gardens

Use it in your flower or vegetable garden to add valuable nutrients back into the soil. Instead of spending money and time shopping for expensive garden fertilizers, use what nature provides and add an inch or two of leaf litter in fall for a better gardening season come spring.

Leaf Mold

Take things a step further, and make leaf mold from your leaf mulch! Leaf mold is simply mulch that has begun the process of fully breaking down. This is easy to create, but takes a bit of patience. Where leaf mulch can be ready for use right away, shredded leaves take up to six months or longer to become leaf mold. To speed up the process, gather mulch into a pile and cover to retain moisture.

Add Shredded Leaves and Grass Clippings to Your Compost Pile

It's true that not everybody wants to use leaf mulch for their garden beds. Whether you don't want to take the time, or have already fertilized these spaces, there is one more thing you can do with your mulch and fresh grass clippings—composting!

Show your compost piles some extra love this year. Composting leaves is an easy way to increase nutrients, good bacteria, and other beneficial organisms to your compost bin. Simply add to your existing compost pile, or start a new one. Make sure your compost remains covered. Water and mix occasionally, and let the magic happen.

Compost piles take a few years to produce finished compost, but the process is incredibly rewarding. There's nothing cooler than making your own, nutrient dense soil out what would've been your waste.

Skip The Rake, Make Mulch!

The task of managing leaves in your yard each year can be daunting, especially if you've got a lot of surface area to cover. Skip the hours of raking and bagging, and make leaf mulch instead. With the right mower or blower, and one afternoon, shredding leaves will give you the material you need to protect your plants and allow your gardens to flourish.

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