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By Bethany A. O’Rear

Q. Autumn is my favorite time of year. The air is getting cooler, the holidays are just around the corner, and the leaves, even though this year’s drought has subdued the brilliant hues that we know and love, still put on a colorful show. However, all too soon, they flutter to the ground, bringing with them the annual question, “What can I do with all of these leaves?” Other than taking on the monumental task of raking and bagging, do you have any suggestions?

A. I love this time of year as well. I always look forward to fall’s brilliant display of color, but, as you mentioned, the drought has taken a toll on how vivid our fall appears this year. Additionally, it has also caused leaves to drop earlier and in greater numbers. Instead of sporadically falling over several weeks, many landscapes have seen a deluge of leaves hitting the ground all at one time.

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Who among us didn’t grow up with the yearly task of raking and bagging leaves for disposal in the landfill? While it was hard work, the occasional dive into the leaf pile made it almost worth it, but, this method is not a good use of our natural resources. Other folks still rake and burn their leaves, which is not only a waste of valuable organic matter, but can also become a fire hazard, depending on the amount of rain that has fallen. This is especially true this year, due to the fact that 46 of our 67 counties are under a burn ban.

There are several other options for leaf disposal. A great way to make use of all of those leaves is to turn them into mulch, and the best method for accomplishing this is by using the lawn mower bagging attachment. The mower helps to shred the leaves, making them less bulky, and more easily handled. After shredding, you can spread leaves around the bases of trees and shrubs, or in your annual and perennial beds to cover any bare soil areas. The gradual decomposition of this leaf layer will result in the addition of valuable organic matter to your soil, as well as moisture conservation and reduced weed growth. One point to consider – leaves break down fairly quickly as a mulch layer. Consequently, you will need to add material a little more often than you would if using bark mulch. If you are like most of us, you have a bountiful supply, so that should be no problem!

Composting is another option for the disposal of all of those leaves. If you have a compost bin, fill it in the fall and keep any remaining leaves in a holding bin or in plastic bags stored nearby. As leaves settle in the bin, continue to add the remaining leaves. Leaves, in their natural form, are somewhat difficult to decompose. Shredding the leaves will be a tremendous help to the decomposition process. You can also speed up the process with the addition of microorganisms. By incorporating a few grass clippings, composted manure, or fertilizer into the compost bin, the leaves can be reduced to a rich organic amendment for your future gardening needs.

If you don’t have a compost bin, you can create a compost heap, which is simply a free-standing pile of leaves. A good, workable size for a compost heap is about 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. The length can vary according to the amount of leaves used. Once again, the rate of decomposition depends greatly on the size of the material to be composted. Shredding leaves will significantly help to speed the process.

A third option is to incorporate leaves into the garden this fall. After spreading a leaf layer (about 2” thick) over the garden, work the layer into the soil. Then, let nature takes its course. The leaves will decompose over the winter, resulting in rich, dark garden soil by next spring.

So, there are several answers to your all too familiar question. Choose the one that works best for you. Just make sure to enjoy autumn’s last burst of color before it fades away. 


written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Other Garden questions? Call the Master Gardener Helpline, 877-252-4769.


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