6 Uses for Leaves this Fall

Close-up of a rake picking up fallen leaves in autumn. Man with a fan rake clears the yellow leaves from the park. Concept of volunteering, cleaning, ecology.

Wondering what to do with fall leaves? Every autumn when the leaves gently tumble down and pile up on the ground, many homeowners reach for the rake and leaf blower, wondering what to do with the dead leaves in their yard.

While leaves are undoubtedly beautiful on the trees, they're also quite beneficial when they fall off. Before you throw out that pile of leaves, make the most of them! Consider them a free gift from autumn!

Why Do Trees Lose Their Leaves in the Fall?

Central Park Poet's Walk promenade in full autumn foliage colors. Manhattan, New York City

You may wonder why trees lose their leaves every fall. After all, it seems logical that the leaves would protect them from winter frost, right?

In the warmer months, chemicals and hormones pass between the leaves, giving energy from the leaves to the branches, limbs, and trunk. Leaves contain a compound in their cells known as chlorophyll. Chlorophyll gives leaves their green hue and serves as a food-producing source. However, chlorophyll isn't just green-colored. It also contains pigments of yellow and orange, known as carotenoids.

When the weather turns cold and the sunshine begins to wane, the leaves receive their signal to stop producing chlorophyll (food for the winter). The green color fades, and the yellow and orange tones become more prevalent—and that's when we get beautiful autumn leaves. When the hormones stop, the connection between the leaves and branches weakens, and the leaves eventually start falling to the ground below.

Why does the tree benefit from the leaf loss? With their leafy foliage gone, trees use up less energy and conserve moisture. Without the leaves, there's less wind resistance, which in turn puts less strain on the branches and the trunk during winter storms.

Understanding why a tree loses leaves in the fall doesn’t necessarily make raking and leaf-blowing any easier on your back during autumn yard and garden projects, though. So, if you're wondering what to do with all those fallen leaves, here are a few ideas to make the most of the season.

1. Make Mulch with Fall Leaves

The man's hands in gardening gloves are sorting through the chopped wood of the trees. Mulching the tree trunk circle with wood chips. Organic matter of natural origin

Fallen leaves offer many great benefits to your lawn and garden beds. There's no reason to toss them out, especially when your plants could use extra protection from the oncoming cold weather and precipitation. Leaves increase water retention and improve soil moisture.

Fall leaves are excellent ground cover if you have a vegetable garden, berry bushes, or any perennial plants and shrubs. They help keep moisture in the soil and prevent erosion during winter rain, snow, and hail, preserving your garden soil for next year. They add additional organic matter to soil structure.

What’s more, leaves are usually “clean” in that they don’t contain seeds that can spread weeds or unwanted plant growth. A big pile of shredded leaves is the best way to protect flower beds and maximize the use of yard waste. 

2. Mow Over the Leaves

Cutting and bagging grass and leaves in the fall with a lawn mower in a neighbourhood backyard in evening light

Can you mow your dry leaves right into your lawn? You bet! Mowing over the top of leaves on the ground is an easy way to break them down and adds beneficial nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and potassium to the soil. You can use them alongside a fall fertilizer and lawn builder.

When the leaves decompose, they create natural mulch that will continue to release micronutrients into the soil below. They also provide food for the soil, helping bugs and annelids, who will continue to assist with improving the soil.

Like leaf mulch, it's important to mow over the leaves to break them down into small pieces that can easily decompose in winter. You can use your lawn mower or a special mulching mower to break down big leaves into smaller pieces.

3. Create a Leaf Pile and Start Composting

Young Woman Shaking Leaves Out of Basket to Compost.

Do you have a composter? If you make compost from your kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, leaf matter makes a great addition to your compost pile or bin. If you're new to the idea of composting, it's an easy, environmentally friendly practice you can begin anytime. Composting helps improve your garden health while lessening the organic food waste you throw in the trash.

It's important to include plant waste in your compost—what's referred to in composting as "brown matter." Brown matter is rich in carbon and includes items like straw, sawdust, shredded paper, dead plants, pine needles, dried grass, and leaves—also known as leaf mold. Compost should also include "green matter," which is the nitrogen-rich components from green grass clippings, veggie and fruit peels and scraps, tea bags, and coffee grounds. By keeping a good balance of these two types of components, you'll create a nutrient-rich mulch that you can use to keep your garden plants healthy and strong.

To start composting, be sure that you only use plant-based matter (processed foods, dairy, and meat can attract pests and other issues). Regularly turn or shake the compost using a compost binshovel, or rake. Within just a few months, you'll have a dark, healthy compost to work into the soil surrounding your plants. Leaf compost, which includes leaf mold, is a good way to prepare organic material to feed your plants next spring.

4. Leave Them for Wildlife

A colorful Fall view of the historic Longstreet Farm in Holmdel New Jersey.

If you have an area with trees and brush, you can leave the leaves right on the ground to create a habitat for animals and insects during cold temperatures. Many animals, including bats, squirrels, toads, turtles, birds, and other garden-friendly creatures, use those layers of leaves and leaf cover for warmth and food in the winter.

Insects also rely on leaf debris for food and warmth (creating an ecosystem of food for the other animals while turning over the soil and keeping it healthy for plants). Many conservation groups encourage homeowners to leave leaves on the ground, at least in certain areas of the yard.

One word to the wise: keep leaves away from your home's foundation, especially if you want to keep out mice and similar animals. Small mammals who rely on your leaf pile can see it as a cozy invitation to explore your home's foundation for cracks and openings. Keep the leaves around the perimeter of your yard away from doors and windows in your home.

5. Plant Protection

The vegetable bed is fertilized with manure in the autumn garden. Technology for growing vegetables on high beds.

If you want to use leaf litter to protect plants from frost and freezing temperatures, it's usually a good idea to spread it around the base of plants after the ground has frozen. Rake up the leaves and store them in a few bags until the temperatures plummet; then, you can spread them at the base of your plants to keep them safe.

For plant protection, you’ll want to use small leaves or make sure that the leaves are shredded with your lawn mower before you spread them—whole leaves can create a barrier that won’t let water get into the plants in the spring.

If you plan to cover certain plants in the winter, you can also add leaves around the base of the plants before you wrap them in burlap or apply plant coverings. A thin blanket of leaves protects tender stems with insulation against fluctuating temperatures.

6. Use Leaves for Fall Décor

cute child girl making herbarium at home, autumn seasonal craftscute child girl making herbarium at home, autumn seasonal crafts

Another way to use fall leaves? Decorate your home! Vibrant autumn leaves rival the beauty of most flowers and look great in a vase or as a table centerpiece for the holidays. Real leaves are eye-catching and beautiful. 

Try to cut small branches of leaves with the stems attached. The leaves will last a very short time because they will start to curl and get dry, but if you place them in water, they can last a few days. Look for hearty autumn leaves like oak, which tend to last a little longer.

Another option is drying and pressing the autumn leaves using a leaf press or inside a heavy book (keep in mind that the leaves can leave marks on pages, so cover them with waxed paper). You can dip leaves in melted beeswax or paraffin wax and hang them on a line to dry. This can help preserve the color so you can use leaves for displays throughout the season.  

Put Your Autumn Leaves to Use with Do It Best

There are plenty of uses for autumn leaves! Enjoy the beauty of the fall season and give those fallen leaves a second life.

You can use fall leaves as mulch and ground cover to protect your planting beds. Shred large leaves and include a leaf layer in your compost pile, or protect tender stems in your perennial beds with a small blanket of leaves. Leaves make a great habitat for small mammals, birds, amphibians, and beneficial insects throughout the chilly winter months.

Of course, you can always use those beautiful, vibrant leaves to create a beautiful autumnal display for your home as well. No matter what, leaves are one of the best parts of this time of year. Don’t just toss them in the garbage. Follow these tips from Do It Best to enjoy your autumn leaves!


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