Six Ways to Use Fallen Leaves in Your Garden

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My Boise front garden this summer, two years after smothering the lawn with leaves.

Got leaves? Use them to boost your garden’s soil and plant health, facilitate the design and creation of new planting beds, turn problem areas into productive ones, and save yourself labor and money, all while doing the green thing. Here are six rewarding, practical alternatives to raking leaves into bags and hauling them off your property.

1. Spread thinly over planted areas. If they’re only an inch or two deep, leave leaves where they have fallen around perennials, shrubs, and trees. Distribute a two-inch layer over the rest of your planted areas as well. Larger or coarser leaves will act as a mulch — suppressing seedling germination, retaining soil moisture, and minimizing erosion. If you shred the leaves first, or if they are naturally small and friable, they will break down more easily and will act more like a soil conditioner than a mulch. Grass clippings can be mixed in for extra nutrition. More details on spreading leaves over perennial beds from Penn State Extension.

2. Spread thinly over lawn. Mow over a light layer of leaves where they have fallen onto a lawn. This will break them into pieces that are less likely to pack down and smother the grass but can sift down between the blades and enrich the soil as they decompose. For stretches of lawn without fallen leaves, spread a thin layer over your lawn and shred with the mower, or shred first and then spread. More details on using fallen leaves to benefit lawns from University of Minnesota Extension.

3. Spread deeply under shrubs. Rake fallen leaves under the skirts of shrubs for a weed-suppressing mulch and nutritious compost all in one. Shrubs of woodland origin can easily handle a deep mulch of leaves, though any groundcover plants under them may smother. Want more shrubs? A thick blanket of leaves can induce arching and suckering woody plants to layer (produce new plants from buried trailing branches), and those new plants will be ready to cut free and dig up within a year or two.

4. Spread deeply to kill lawn. Pile fallen leaves over a section of lawn to smother it for planting next year. A foot-deep layer of leaves should be sufficient to kill a fescue lawn. If your lawn plants are particularly tough, lay cardboard first for extra help with weed suppression. (If you are smothering lawn over a tree’s root zone, tackle no more than a quarter of the root zone per year.) With enough warmth, moisture, and soil life, your leaves might mostly decompose over the first winter, or it could take a year or so for them and the erstwhile lawn to transform into rich, crumbly, worm-filled topsoil.

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Here’s the front yard in December 2013, with piled leaves shaping the new beds. Remaining lawn shows where the stepping stone paths will be.

5. Make more places for leaves. Design planting beds that can take your extra leaves every year — leaf processing areas, so to speak. Site them within convenient raking distance of (or within) your lawn, patio, and paved areas. Plant tall, robust shrubs in them and plan to add a deep layer of leaves to those beds every year. An island within the lawn can be planted with native berrying and flowering shrubs to become a songbird haven. Site it so it provides a four-season view from a window of the house or from an outdoor sitting area. A hedge along the driveway also makes an excellent leaf processing area; just sweep them off the pavement and into the shrubbery.

6. Get your compost mix right. Set aside a bag or two of leaves to spread thinly over the compost pile every time you empty your kitchen scrap bucket onto it. This will help to mask unpleasant odors, balance green materials with brown, and speed decomposition.

Now for the caveats:

As you may have deduced from our recent discussion about the National Wildlife Federation’s leaf-leaving advice, it’s important to consider your climate and site, the type of leaves you have, and the plants you are growing.

While some leaves break down quickly (honeylocust, for instance), thick and leathery leaves such as magnolia or oak may not decompose for years without being shredded first. These latter types of leaves will require extra effort to incorporate into your garden.

If you are cultivating mosses or other fragile groundcovers under your trees, a deep leaf layer will kill them.

Aesthetics can play a part in your choices too.

But before you bag them and send them away, consider how those free fallen leaves might benefit you and your garden.

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Perennials, annuals, and vegetables, including dryland native plants, are thriving in the decomposed leaves.


  1. Great round-up, but I have a question. In addition to “mosses or other fragile groundcovers under your trees” aren’t there other perennials that can be harmed by leaf cover? I’m thinking of the dryland, drought-tolerant ones like Sedum and Lamb’s ears that typically come from places without deciduous trees and don’t respond well to shade or constant moisture.

    • Susan, it’s true that sedums and other dryland perennials wouldn’t do well with a deep layer of leaves over them. And using my terminology above, I would always consider oak or magnolia or other thick, coarse, larger leaves to be a deep layer. They wouldn’t form a thin enough layer unless they were shredded because of their tendency to pack together and keep water from penetrating to the ground beneath.

      In my current garden, which is located in an extremely dry climate on alkaline, sandy soil, a thin layer of whatever organic matter I have at hand (leaves, grass clippings, chipped wood, pine needles, or a blend of those) has posed no problem for any of the dryland perennials I am growing. This includes Eriogonums, Zauchneria, various Penstemon and Salvia, Hesperaloe, Oenethera, and many Mediterranean herbs. I have also used deep layers of leaves smothering a lawn to create the planting beds in which these plants are thriving.

      My leaves come from many sites around town. Here, large and leathery leaves are fairly rare. When I notice a bag of oak leaves, I do use it differently than a bag of chopped maple leaves mixed with grass clippings.

    • I just moved midsummer from a rural meadow (extravagantly gardened!) home to an urban home in a wooded neighborhood with our lot abutting an intact steep forested ravine. I have a small sunny front yard (rare in the neighborhood!) and had visions of repeating my successful extravagant praire style borders. . . until the oak, beech and maple leaves started falling. (I’m loving the woodland opportunity in back of the house. Formerly I had to “grow my own shade”!)

      In my still evolving design vision, I REFUSE to “process” leaves other than shift them around, if necessary. And my plant selection criteria for the sunny front “lawn to garden” has changed: they have to be sturdy enough and tall enough to grow up through said leaves, be woodland edge in their original habitats, and include more shrubs than I originally envisioned; all to catch and retain said leaves in place.

      I strongly believe we need to design our gardens and plant selection based on site conditions, and if one’s landscape is under trees, it should be planned to accommodate the leaves that fall, in place, with minimal, if any, lawn mower shredding. I hope mine will demonstrate an attractive alternative: a similar desirable multi season beauty (plus leaves! 🙂 but using a different selection of plants. And that’s the key detail IMO, rethinking the plant list.

    • The corrugated cardboard I’ve used has always broken down pretty quickly, within a year or less. I know Linda Chalker-White really doesn’t like it, but:
      1. IIRC, she suggests using deep layers of mulch, like 8 inches or more, instead. but I have cardboard, I don’t have that much mulch, and in my small suburban lot I can’t just raised my lawn 8″ without causing problems with fences, the house foundation, etc.
      2. She’s thinking about – I think – a yard’s worth of area at a time, but Evelyn is suggesting using it to kill lawn for a new bed. I have used cardboard with a couple inches of mulch on top to kill lawn for areas around 5 by 8 feet, and by the time I’m planting a year later the soil is rich loam filled with worms and generally the new plants take off growing right away.

    • Thanks, Vincent, for sharing more details about the cardboard; it is great to understand the pros and cons before choosing to use various materials. I too have noticed more worms in areas under the cardboard.

      Kermit, you were right, I was really thinking of cardboard as a helpful extra for killing areas of lawn that have tougher plants in them; it’s worked for me with creeping charlie, clover, and dandelions, whereas piling deeper leaves has not always been effective in those situations. I would use caution spreading it across too large an area, particularly above tree roots.

  2. Thanks! I now know how to compost my Cow Magnolia leaves — huge, thin, feathery things, not at all like regular Magnolia leaves.

    They fall where they’re mostly not needed or wanted.

    I don’t own a lawnmower so dry them in a bag and stomp on ’em. I’ll sprinkle a layer of stomped-on leaves each time I empty the kitchen bucket.

    Thanks again!

  3. After moving my tomato cages to their new spot in the fall, I fill them up with “extra” leaves. Come spring there is a deep layer of compost on the bottom, ready to be incorporated into the planting hole. The remaining leaves serve as mulch and keep the ‘maters weed free all summer. Beware of bringing in leaves from other areas as they can be contaminated with herbicide or promiscuous acorns!

  4. I just started with the leaves last week, there are so many. I put them in my compost, in the raised beds, get them ready for spring. I live in Rhode Island so my trees are so bare. ,eaves are everywhere. You have given me some other ideas thank you. I also put them over my lavender plants, onion and garlic.

    Thank You for the great tips!


  5. It was a real treat to see the local news reporting on the Minnesota Extension’s recommendation of trying to not rake up and dispose of fall leaves. The leaves are great! They are essential for overwintering animals. And in the garden they’re an ideal mulch- especially in woodland gardens.

    We’ve been recommending for years to use leaves in positive ways. Rake leaves right into the garden beds for a bed of heavy and healthy winter protection that also feeds the soil. You can run your mower over the leaves to chop them up finer, which makes them break down faster and look like a more professional mulch product, if that’s something you’re worried about. You can even chop them up and toss them in your chicken coop and run for a great bedding alternative.

    Wonderful post as always!

    Greenwood Nursery Team

  6. Great post! As the last of the leaves are falling, there is no reason not to utilize them for the health of your plants. Leaves and brush make a great natural compost. You make a great point that not all leaves will entirely decompose on their own by spring. Research the trees in your yard to make sure you get the best use of your leaves, and find out if you will need to shred them first. It’s hard to beat free resources!

  7. Thanks for sharing all of these excellent tips! These are great ideas to make good use of a naturally occurring resource.

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