Leaf litter has a number of ecological benefits—here are a few things to consider when “leaving the leaves” this autumn.

Leaf Pile
You may not have to rake up every last one. Photo by Yuliya Koneva/Getty Images.

This time of year, there’s a lot of talk about “leaving the leaves,” but exactly what does that mean? As much as some of you would love to hear that it’s time to toss out the rake, that’s not exactly the case— there’s still some work to do! 

“Leaving the leaves” means keeping them on your property, but not necessarily where they landed. Of course, not moving them is fine in certain instances (and locations), but leaf litter should be relocated and managed for best results. Don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded with nutrient-rich fertilizer and a healthier garden for your efforts. In fact, many of my fellow Master Gardeners are known to eagerly relieve their neighbors of leaves (or even take them from other people’s curbs) because they know how incredibly valuable fallen foliage is when used correctly. 

Ready to turn “trash” into treasure? Read on to learn about the benefits of keeping and using leaves to improve your garden and habitat health. 

Why You Should Keep Leaves on Your Property

Raking Fall Leaves

Maksym Belchenko/Getty Images

Healthier Trees and Shrubs: Leaves are a valuable natural resource containing 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air during the season. This organic matter contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen which prepare the plant for growth and flower/fruit production come spring. 

Stronger Soil: Leaf litter acts like mulch which assists in regulating soil temps while reducing compaction and keeping weeds at bay. Additionally, it improves drainage while insulating delicate top roots during colder temps. 

Wildlife Benefits: Not only do decomposing leaves offer a food source for good crawlies like earthworms, snails, and millipedes, but they also provide shelter for a number of beneficial and native insects who need to overwinter protected from the elements. Additionally, wildlife such as small mammals, birds, lizards, and amphibians rely on these insects as their own food source which in turn creates a perfectly balanced ecosystem.

It’s a Sustainable Solution: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, yard waste (including leaves) accounts for 33 million tons per year in landfills while emitting harmful greenhouse gases. 

When You Should Remove Leaf Litter

Drainage Pond
Don’t let leaves block the flow of water on your property.

Thomas J. Story

When You Have Drainage Issues: Gutters, dry washes, and drainage pathways should always be cleared of debris to eliminate standing water while keeping moisture flowing to its proper destination. Damp leaves left in certain areas, such as against the house or near a fence, can also create unwanted problems such as mold, decay, and other forms of water damage. 

When They’re a Fire Hazard: Certain climates, especially those without wet winters, will have a slower turnover rate of breaking down leaf matter. Buildup of this dry plant material can become a major danger, especially in fire-prone areas or near trees with a high oil content in their leaves (think eucalyptus, acacia, bay, and olive trees). Be sure to clear away large piles from structures and woodpiles. 

If They Impede Accessibility: Damp leaves can become a slippery slope, literally. Keep paths, walkways, and access points that might need to be used throughout the season cleared as needed.

How to Manage and Use Fallen Leaves for Garden Health

Japanese Maple

Thomas J. Story

Mowing: This is the most efficient and easiest way to manage leaf accumulation for lawns, lawn alternatives, and ground covers. Simply mow over leaf accumulation and leave shredded organic material to quickly break down and provide benefits. Similarly, you can rake leaves into a pile and use a shredder/mulcher to break down material and spread where needed. 

Mulching: Shredded leaves can be used as a mulch in a number of garden applications. Add them to vegetable gardens, flower beds, as well as the area around trees and perennial shrubs to increase soil health while retaining moisture and preventing erosion. Apply 2-4 inches around plants, making sure there’s space cleared around main stems and trunks to avoid rotting. 

Composting: You might have seen some pricy bags of “leaf mold” at your local nursery, but you can easily make it yourself with some patience. Unlike other composting methods, you only need leaves… and 6-12 months. Simply place leaves in a 3×3 wood or wire bin (a garbage bag can also work in a pinch–just make sure to punch a few holes for air flow) and fully dampen the pile. Turn and add water as needed; compost will be ready to use once it looks dark brown with the same consistency as soil. 

Soil Amendment: Leaves can be worked directly into soil to break down over time and release additional nutrients in addition to improving drainage. When tilled into clay soil, leaves improve aeration and drainage, and when tilled into sandy soil they will improve water- and nutrient-holding capacity.

BioSwales: If you’re adding swales as a drainage solution or for additional water capturing on slopes and hillsides, leaves make for an exceptionally inexpensive organic material for filler. This organic matter aids in slowing down the flow of stormwater while providing nutrients to nearby plantings. 

Bug Snugs: Move over bug hotels; the bug snug is our new favorite way to make critters happy over the winter. Create a tripod structure using branches and simply pack the inside tightly with bark, leaves, and other organic materials to create a luxury high-rise apartment for beneficial creatures needing a safe place to hide. 

Still feeling overwhelmed by your fallen fronds? Even if you have far too many leaves to handle, you might have a few eager neighbors to relieve you of your botanical baggage. If not, try your local “buy nothing” or “Facebook neighbors” group (you’ll be surprised how quickly people will relieve you). At the very least, please never bundle up your extra organic matter in plastic bags. Placing it directly in the green bin is best but putting it to work in your garden is even better. Here’s to giving back to our gardens this season.