Using Autumn Leaves in the Landscape

Lee ArmilleiField Notes

I used to work at a flower shop in downtown West Chester. It was beautiful there every season, but particularly in autumn, when the gold, rust, and crimson leaves complimented the brick red sidewalks. One of the flower shop neighbors hated fall leaves though… so much so that he would rake and blow the leaves off his trees to expedite their removal! Now, working for GreenWeaver, I find that this gentleman is not alone. In fall, our phone rings endlessly with new customers looking for “Leaf Removal”.

The idea of “Leaf Removal” breaks my heart. If you have enough trees on your property to form a layer of leaf litter, I would say you’re very fortunate. Leaves should be viewed as a resource rather than a waste product. A layer of leaf litter helps retain moisture in the soil, it provides habitat for a variety of insects, plants, and animals, and the slow breakdown adds nutrients back into the soil for plants to use.

If the idea of using your leaves as a resource is new to you, I suggest a couple of easy ways to get started.

Leaf Mulch

Leaf litter is an easy, inexpensive, and beautiful form of mulch. On most properties, it is quicker than collecting leaves too because you are spreading fallen leaves throughout your beds instead of hauling them all to a single location. GreenWeaver provides this service for Mowing and Gardening clients, as well as first time clients looking for an alternative to “Leaf Removal”.

Take the first step

Early fall is the best time to get started mulching with leaf litter. As leaves drop, continue with your regular mowing schedule but slowly begin directing the leaves toward your beds. A simple clean up with a rake gets the shredded leaves into the bed and spreads them throughout. Do this through the rest of the fall season and the work load is greatly reduced. Dry fall leaves are not only lighter and easier to spread than shredded hardwood mulch, but they’re free!

Who benefits

Your work load is reduced, your mulch supply is free, and you’re reducing fossil fuel use and emissions by keeping this supposed “waste” on site.  You should feel good about making the switch to shredded leaves as mulch! An additional benefit to spreading shredded leaves as mulch in the fall is that many insects overwinter in leaf litter, such as our native ladybugs and fireflies, as well as spiders and snails. Some of these creatures help break down the leaf litter, returning the nutrients back to the soil, and in turn benefiting the trees. Birds also benefit by using these insects as a winter food source.  Have you ever seen a sparrow hopping back and forth in fallen leaves?  They are looking for the insects that overwinter on the ground.  Our practice of removing fallen leaves has disrupted this part of the food web. By mulching your beds with your fall leaves, it’s easy to benefit the food web, as well.


If you do your own leaf clean up, chances are you are already collecting your leaves and keeping them on-site. This is a great first step! You are reducing the fossil fuels it takes to move them off-site and you’re keeping the nutrients the trees pulled out of the soil on site as well.

Take the next step

If you don’t keep your leaves on site, start by setting aside some space to keep fallen leaves on your property. A simple wire-mesh fence can help contain the leaves, but I prefer to build more attractive containment areas using lattice boards secured to wooden posts. I have also seen attractive compost areas made of cinder blocks painted in bright colors.  Be creative and use your imagination.  What I don’t recommend are pre-fabricated, enclosed compost bins. Too often they are abandoned and what’s left is nasty rotting mush in a dark hole. I certainly don’t want to put my hands in there!

If you’re looking to improve the leaf pile you already have, add some green debris to encourage faster decomposition. The general rule of thumb for the brown to green ratio (carbon to nitrogen ratio) is 25 parts brown (dried leaves, cardboard, etc.) to 1 part green (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, etc.). Then, simply add oxygen to your pile by turning it regularly. In that way the oxygen is helping the good decomposers to breathe plus, as it heats up in the center to break down, the outer materials are being moved to the inside. The finished product should look and feel like a dark, rich soil- the color of a 70% Cacao dark chocolate candy bar.

Who benefits

On a broad scale, you are helping reduce fossil fuel emissions by keeping materials onsite. This, of course, helps keep our air clean and reduces the output of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. On a personal scale, your property benefits when this rich, organic matter is spread throughout your property. Add it to new and existing plant beds or spread a light coat (no more than ¼”) over your lawn in the spring or fall. Quality compost adds beneficial soil micro-organisms which help feed plants and protect plant roots. Compost also helps improve soil structure, water retention, and adds an organic source of nutrients wherever it’s used. It’s amazing what your leaves can do, given a little time and oxygen.

For more information on implementing either of these land care techniques, feel free to contact GreenWeaver. We’re always happy to help you add life to your property.