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Before You Rake—Leaf Mulch as Natural Fertilizer

Leaves are nature's best fertilizer. Before you rake them to the curb for pick-up, here's how you can use them to cover your planting beds and turf grass.

In the fall we tend to get rid of all of the leaves that fall to the ground in our yards and gardens. The leaves are actually nature’s best fertilizer.

Just think: for millions of years, there were no chemical fertilizers; only the nutrients provided by nature. If you rake up your leaves and mulch them into a fine mixture and then cover your planting beds with a 2-4 inch leaf mulch layer, then you are providing most of the nutrients that your plants/grass needs.

This also goes for turf grass and lawns. If you mow a layer of the leaves into the lawn in the fall and leave it there, much of it will be broken down by spring, and the remainder will continue to break down over the year as the new grass grows through it and covers it up. Natural fertilizer.

The recommended amount is 2-4 inches per year for a healthy soil. Broken-down leaves provides food for beneficial soil inhabitants—bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms, etc.—that in turn break down the nutrients and provide them to the roots of the plants.  For best results use a variety of different leaves from different types of trees, oak, maple, elm, etc. 

You can use a leaf blower/vacuum, but I have found that the best is to get a leaf mulcher. It can be placed on a trash can to contain the shredded leaves, and then used to carry the leaf mulch to the areas that you want to cover.

For turf lawns, use a lawn mower. Spread out the leaves and allow the mower to chop them up right onto the lawn, leaving them to break down over the winter. At Longwood Gardens, this is used extensively on the planting beds with a 4-to-6-inch-thick layer. 

The central plant in the photo is arum italicum, or Italian Arum. It starts to put out leaves in October, and will continue to do so into the spring/summer. It blooms in late winter/early spring and will produce a thick spadix of bright red berries.

If you should have any questions, please feel free to contact me at Ferret Hollow Gardens.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bob G-man May 13, 2013 at 12:43 AM
Steve: I like using leaves for mulching - now that I am doing final spring cleaning of beds, my question is about the leaf type. Is there a "preferred" leaf, e.g. oak vs. maple, especially regarding nutrition or pH? Should I keep one perhaps and ditch the other? The maple leaves seem "leathery" vs. oak, but on the rest I have no idea. Thinking about other common trees in town, how about ash, willow oak, poplar, and ornamental pears? Any advice appreciated !
Jim McNeill May 13, 2013 at 10:24 AM
burnings leaves is the best way to tell your neighbors who's boss.....thick pungent smoke will keep them at bay inside their homes with no chance to bother you.
Stephen Coan May 13, 2013 at 01:25 PM
A mix of different leaves is good. That is what I prefer. Each type of leaf has a different chemical composition that adds back the different elements that are needed for a healthy soil. What you are doing if feeding the soil and its denizens who are then breaking down the compounds making them available to be absorbed by the plant roots.
kevin May 13, 2013 at 04:07 PM
Steve- Can this mulching technique be done with just grass clippings instead of leaves? If I leave them on my lawn during this time of year will it be of any benefit to the soil?
Stephen Coan May 13, 2013 at 06:20 PM
the problem with grass clippings all summer is that there might be too much buildup of the grass clippings. Doing it occasionally should be fine. You just don't want to "drown" the grass that is growing. It is also a high concentration of nitrogen in the green of the grass. Different locations will break down faster that other area due to the cultural conditions of that area, ie full sun vs shade, dry vs wet, healthy micro fungi, bacteria, mold, etc of the soil that break down the materials. If you use chemicals on the lawn they tend to kill off the beneficial organisms. If you mow the leaves into the grass in the fall while it is dormant the leaves should mostly break down over the winter. The new growth in the spring should also grow through the remaining leaves (mulched small) remaining that will "fertilize" the soil (lawn) for you as it breaks down.

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