Ah, lovely autumn is upon us, quite possibly my favourite season. And what is more quintessentially autumnal than drifts of fallen leaves covering the ground? But once you’ve taken an artistic shot of the burnished leaves in the soft glow of the low sun and uploaded the pic to Instagram, what should you do with them?
1. Nothing at All – how easy is that? If the leaves fall from trees like hornbeams, hazels, ash, birch i.e. are light and papery, you can happily leave them to rot down on beds and borders. This will save the financial and environmental costs involved in buying in mulch to put on your borders, plus save you time and effort.
Two caveats; this may not work with thick leaves like oak leaves – these can take a year or so to break down, so won’t be suitable on perennials borders where they may cause the plants underneath to rot or be smothered. If mulching perennials, the layer can’t be too thick, regardless of the type of leaf for the same reason.
If you encourage your plants to self-seed around the place, beware that a thick layer of mulch will suppress many of the seeds that dispersed over the summer and autumn. However, this is true of all mulches.
2. Use Them as Mulch - If they fall on a lawn or hard landscaping such as paths and patios, you will need to remove them. Leaving leaves on your lawn will quickly kill the grass. Again, if they’re thin leaves, use them to mulch your beds. Tougher, thicker leaves can be used to mulch under trees, hedges and shrubs, creating a lovely winter nest for insects and other creatures. Don’t put leaves right up against the trunks or crowns of shrubs to avoid rotting.
3. Hide Them - If you’re worried the leaves you collect will blow around the garden again, stash them in sheltered locations. My garden is surrounded by a woodland of towering oaks and I’ve become an expert in hiding leaves – down the back of the greenhouse, over fences into hedgerows, behind compost bins, at the back of borders, anywhere is fair game. I know it’s basic science but leaf fall is part of a cycle; trees take nutrients from the ground, some of which end up in their leaves. The leaves drop and the nutrients in them return to the soil where they can be used again by the tree or other plants in the future. If you remove the leaves but don’t give anything back to the soil, it’s constantly being depleted without any replacement (unless you add fertilisers, but that’s a topic for another day). The leaves really need to stay on or around where they fall in order to remain part of this important cycle.
4. Create Leaf Mould – if you’ve ever seen this done, you’ll know you need a fairly big space in which to build your leaf mould pile. The sides need to be open to get the appropriate amount of airflow around the pile so it can break down properly, so use something like chicken wire for the sides. And you need to leave it alone for a couple of years before you get a useful product. You can speed up this process or use it in a small garden by bagging up the leaves. Use an empty compost bag or something similar, loosely roll the top over and forget about it. Within around 6 moths to a year, you’ll have rotted down leaves that can be put on your beds or mixed into potting compost and used in containers.
So there are my suggestions as to what you could do with your autumn leaves. As a word of caution, please, please don’t EVER burn your leaves. The only time it’s ok to do this is if they have some hideous disease and you’re unable to send them off to be hot composted in your green waste bin. If you burn leaves, not only are you allowing the carbon in the leaves to float off into the atmosphere, you’re depleting the soil and quite possibly setting fire to any number of invertebrates that were attached to those leaves. Plus your clothes and hair will stink for the rest of the day and nobody will want to know you.
If you have any ingenious tips as to what you do with the fallen leaves in your garden, please let me know by commenting below.