What to do with your dead leaves

Nov15th 201025 comments

This time of year you see a lot of "eco-friendly" gardening advice about dead leaves and I wholeheartedly endorse the bottom line - that it's crazy to send them off to the local landfill, where they take up space and waste all that organic matter.  But the next part of the advice - what to do with them instead - well, that's where it starts to get complicated but hey, that's gardening!  Let's dig in.

On the lawn

Nobody seems to think that whole leaves should be allowed to remain on lawn because they can smother turfgrass.  Many experts suggest instead that we run over them with a lawn mower and let the chopped-up leaves stay there as a source of organic matter and some nutrients for the turfgrass.  That's great advice and don't worry - it won't cause or contribute to a thatch problem.  (Thatch is usually caused by overfertilization with synthetic fertilizers).  Some brand new research proves that chopped leaves not only add organic matter and nutrients – they even suppress weeds!  Here’s the story.  

However, some folks consider any use of a gas- or electric-powered lawn mowers to be an unsustainable gardening practice for obvious reasons - the fossil fuels involved (either gas or the coal required to produce electricity).  But lawn mowers are a topic for another time - a very hot topic these days.  So moving on, if you do remove leaves from your lawn or anywhere else, what do you do with them?  See composting below.

In the vegetable garden

This situation is a simple one.  Leaves that fall on an emptied vegetable garden can be left in place and then turned under in the spring, after which they'll decompose quickly, adding organic matter and some nutrients to the soil. 

On hard surfaces

For obvious safety purposes, dead leaves should be removed early and often from surfaces people walk on.   And certainly all wood surfaces benefit from having the leaves removed to prevent rotting.  

In the flower and shrub beds

What to do about leaves on and around our ornamental beds and borders is where the hot-under-the-collar arguments really take place.  (Yes, gardeners are an opinionated bunch.)  Though everyone does agree that chopped leaves are great in the beds and borders as an organic mulch, and for more about chopped-leaf mulch, check the Illinois Extension Service.

But whole leaves?  Well, it depends - on how many leaves, what type of leaf, and which groundcovers those leaves are covering. To get personal, about 50 trees drop their leaves on my garden, most of them large oaks, and these masses of large, whole leaves can mat down and smother my groundcovers, or at least create a barrier that would prevent rainwater from seeping through to the soil.  And oak leaves simply don't decompose over the course of the winter, so I'd have to collect them in the spring anyway, so why not do it now?  I rake up about 80-90 percent of them in December when they've all fallen, and I do the fine-raking and hand-picking in the spring when I'm cleaning up, mulching and generally prettying up for the new season.

But not everyone agrees about this. Syndicated columnist and Maine gardener Barbara Damrosch writes that "Most ground covers...benefit from a weed-smothering leaf mulch - once winter has matted it down a bit - and will come up happily in spring. I let leaves collect in perennial flower beds, too, removing them carefully with a narrow, springy metal rake just before spring bulbs poke up. They can be gathered for the compost pile."  But Barbara, how come they smother just the weeds and not the desirable plants, your groundcovers?  Could be that your groundcovers are unkillable, like English ivy and Pachysandra, while I'm talking about more delicate ones like Pulmonaria and Ajuga?

So here's where I come down:  If you have just a few leaves, or if they're thin like elm leaves, then they probably won't do any harm and will decompose by spring, so go for it - if you like the look.  Yes, appearance, pure aesthetics and nothing more - is another reason I remove most leaves in the fall - because I'd rather see even semi-evergreen groundcovers than brown, dead leaves.  Gardeners in colder climates may be looking at snow cover from Thanksgiving until May, so they laugh at the very notion of seeing their groundcovers over the winter. 

See how many variables are at play here?  And why it drives me crazy to see gardening advice that assumes all gardens are the same!?

Composting dead leaves

Now if you DO remove any or all of your leaves, what should you do with them?  Everyone agrees that they make for some mighty fine homemade compost, especially if you combine them with some green matter like lawn clippings for a nutritionally complete result.  But there’s disagreement about whether whole leaves compost well and here I’ll weigh in.  My compost method (such as it is) is to simply pile the leaves up and wait a year or more for them to decompose.  The problem is they never DO decompose completely because I never water or turn the pile.  (Breaking all rules, I know, but turning is hard work.)  But no matter – I use the resulting so-so “compost”, containing some noticeably uncomposted chunks, in out-of-the-way spots as mulch, or to amend the soil.

But if you want to turn dead leaves into quality compost it’s much better to chop the leaves first, and I did that for a whole season a few years back. I bought a cheap filiment-style shredder for about 100 bucks and ran all my leaves through it. But because it was a cheap, flimsy machine, the Weedwacker-type filament broke with every twig and acorn it encountered, so every five minutes or so I had to stop and replace the filament, and the chopping process became a super headache.  If I’d spent more on a chipper-shredder the work would have gone quickly, but I judged $1,000+ to be too steep a price for faster, more uniform compost.  Of course I could have spread all the leaves on the lawn, then mowed them with a mulching mower (one with a bag to catch the cuttings) but that sounds to me like a whole lot of work to me.

The Rutgers Extension Service has good information about composting with dead leaves - check that link.  They offer a tip I hadn't seen before - adding Nitrogen to the compost bin to speed up the process.

If you don't have space for a composting operation, your city or county may have the answer - or will soon if enough residents ask for it.  About 20 years ago local governments across the U.S. began prohibiting the dumping of green waste like leaves and creating programs to collect and compost yard waste for their residents. As a result, they make good use of all that organic matter, save the money they used to spend on landfill fees, and save even more money because they’re using their own homemade compost on public land instead of buying compost and fertilizer products. 

Below you see the city crew picking up leaves on my street, and the resulting mulch pile delivered to my driveway the following spring.

Top photo credit.

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Shredding those leaves is easy

All you need is one of the leaf blowers that has a vacuum attachment that sucks the leaves through a shredder inside it into a bag. Ours is a rechargeable electric one that was less than $75 at a big box store. And the leaf pile takes up far less space once they've been shredded.

How noisy?

Wow, Heather, that's good news. I hate leaf blowers, though, and so do my neighbors. So I have to ask - how noisy is it?

Noise factor

It's not nearly as noisy as the one our neighbor has (gas powered), but louder than raking. I'd say buy one and try it, but keep the receipt in case it's too loud for you (or your neighbors).

Returning stuff you've "TRIED".

How about ask the manufacturer about the decibels?  How about hear a demo?  How about find someone who has one and try that one?  Why would you think it's okay to be so lazy and so inconsiderate to take a new thing, try it only to see if you like it and then give it back?  That's like adopting a kid and then sending him back to the orphanage.  That store will not be able to sell that as a new product again.  They do the return thing to be nice, and when stuff doesn't work.  It isn't for "trying".


Jeanne...I'm with you....it takes big kahuna's to go to a store, buy a machine, take it home to "try" it, then return in and get your money back. First, the seller is out big bucks....second....how many people do this just to get a free weekend of a machine....third....do a little research first, then either buy it or don't , but don't expect the store to give you a free rental for the week.

I bought a leaf blower/vac

I bought a leaf blower/vac last  year.  I read many reviews which ranged from very good to very bad.  I read all the manufacter's materials which said it is a stupendous machine.  I didn't know of anyone who had one.  So, I bought one.  After an hour of use, it was clear that it was not all it was cracked up to be so I returned it.  

So, I guess I am inconsiderate and lazy.   But at least I am not stupid enough to be stuck wtih a machine that did not live up to expectations.  As for the poor little retailer?  Well, their stock is near an all-time high and I have spent plenty of other dollars there.  I think they will be just fine.   I am pretty sure they don't do the return thing to be nice.  I am pretty sure they do the return thing so a customer can make a purchase they are not 100% sure about with the confidence that  they won't be left holding the bag.  If that wasn't the case, they they wouldn't have such a flexible return policy. 

Feeding trees

Are you aware that 80%-90% of trees' nutritional needs are met by their own fallen leaves? Chop them or don't as you see fit, but don't rob the trees of what they need. Their own leaves contain the specific nutrients the trees took from the ground. They need those nutrients returned to the soil, not just any nutrients, those specific nutrients.
Where I live electricity is generated by hydroelectric dams. Electricity is non-polluting here.

Right you are!

Yes, I'm aware and that's why I use leafmold mulch in all my beds and borders. That way someone else does the leaf-chopping and aging for me, and my trees still get the benefit of all those leaves.

Great article!

Susan, this is the best and most comprehensive article I've seen on what do do with your autumn leaves. And I've written one myself! Thanks for writing this important article and getting the word out. Nice job as always.


Joe, great to hear from you, as always. And when the heck is your show coming to the PBS affiliate in DC?

My Show coming to DC?

Hi Susan. Soon I hope. Just got back from Palm Springs (yeah, I know, tough assignment) for a PBS related meeting with all the bigshots from across the country, including D.C! Made some contacts and we're hiring a station relations team to help get our foot in the door in select markets. I predict 2011 will have us in many more markets, including yours! Thanks for asking and hope to see you soon.

critters need the leaf litter too

A little (or a lot) of leaf litter in the garden gives certain wildlife a place to winter over - bumblebee queens for instance, spiders, and our much maligned snails. - Birds need snail's calcium to make decent shells come spring. Nature has got it all worked out. Or she had anyway, once upon a time...

Good point

I do leave some of the leaves in the borders, esp at the back around the shrubs but not on top of groundcovers. And half my garden is all-woods, where I don't rake at all. I've also created brush piles there in the woods for the critters. I love me those critters! And thanks, Kris, for commenting. How about a guest post sometime to tell us about Blithewold, or anything else you'd like to write about?

Leaf compost

Our house is essentially located in the middle of a windy open field, surrounded by woods. A lot of leaves blow through in the fall, but none of them collect to any degree on my gardens. However, I love leaf compost and am happy to take bagged leaves from neighbors. Years ago a friend, now departed, taught me about cold compost gardens. He took as many leaves as he could get and dumped them into wire frames of any size or shape he chose, that were two to four feet high. The leaves actually start to break down almost immediately, no shredding required. In the spring most of the rotted leaves can be dug into the garden or tossed into another frame. Oak leaves do take longer than other leaves. You can also plant right in the leaves for a spot garden of annuals, herbs or whatever. You can tie up tomatoes to the stakes on the outside of the wire frame. It's good to know there are so many ways of fruitfully handling autumn leaves.

In some spots...

Whole leaves do damage some groundcovers, even under snow. Oak leaves can even interfere with spring bulbs coming up. But in some bare spots, over perennials that won't be up until true spring, whole leaves can provide some protection.

Dead leaves

Hey Susan.
Leaves will compost faster if you add a smattering of good garden soil as you pile them up. That inoculates the entire leaf pile with the composting bacteria that exist in the soil. Basically you'd be doing what all those "compost starters" propose to do at some ridiculous expense. But your own soil is free. And speeds up decomp.


Hi Susan,
Here in Pittsburgh PA we have a non profit called Ag-Recycle that works with the city, the local buisness, and home owners to dispose of there yard debris. All the debris is taken to a drop off point where Ag-recycle turns it in to compost and mulch. The drop off fee is about $10 for a truck load and they sell the compost for around $20 a yard. It's a great way for us city dwellers to re-use our natural resources.

What do you mean every garden is not the same?

When I was a kid, I recall my dad would pile a bunch of leaves in the back of the pickup truck (we lived in the country), head down the street to where there were no houses, drop the tailgate, and hit the gas. It was so much fun watching the leaves get caught by the wind and cover the sky like a thousand red and yellow butterflies. In hindsight, I have no idea why we did this, but it was fun at the time.

I had just posted today on my own blog about mulching with leaves (http://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-gardening-tips/mulch-types-how-to...) and I had to update it and link to this blog post because it was just so darned sensible! It can be tough for me to fit everything into 500 words and so sometimes things get left out, but you're right, here I was praising leaves when it is possible to have too many leaves and it's important to remember one size doesn't fit all. Thanks.


This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality.
this is very nice one and gives in depth information. thanks for this nice article.

Really neat that the city

Really neat that the city delivers compost on your driveway. Our city composts all green waste, but we get to go and pick up free compost at their facility.
All I need though is a good pick up truck !

Great Tips

I am from Florida and we do not see a lot of dead leaves around here, but the ones that we do see usually get blown back onto the grass from the landscapers. Guess a lot of the Floridian landscapers just use the dead leaves as fertilizer for lawns and gardens.

Oak Leaves Compost

I live in Florida with a lot of oak trees on my property. I have about 15 large black tubs. The tubs originally had molasses in them and ranchers buy them for their cattle. When the tubs are empty, they are basically not of much use, becasue there is usually a small hole in the bottom.
I discovered several years ago that these make great compost bins for oak leaves. I put several holes in the bottom with a hammer & nail, then fill up with the leaves & water whenever I think about it. Magically, worms come in through the bottom and make great compost for me ! In about 8 months the bottom half is rich dark dirt with lots of worms, I never turn or mix the leaves, just let them sit (in the shade).

Your dead leaves.

If you got some clean ones i would like the buy thm whole.

Just wondering becouse you seem to pick them up as they fall so the would have to be fresh
and not have bugs,
I would be willing to buy some from you, Seeing as how I am growing morel mushrooms in
a fish tank and need some clean leaves to put on top of the dirt.

leave me a comment back if yu can do this for me.

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