Kitchen Gardening

Fall Leaves Make a Great Garden Mulch

Don't bag them and send them to the dump. Put this resource to work for your garden.

  • Raking leaves is pleasant work on a sunny autumn day.
    Photo/Illustration: Kate Frank
  • Leaves are too valuable a resource to bag and take to the dump. Use them to make leaf mold or spread them over your vegetable garden in late fall. Photo by cazstar under the Creative Commons Attribution Licesne 2.0.
  • Here's the compost heap restocked with this year's leaves. And just in time, too.
    Photo/Illustration: Ruth Dobsevage

For many, raking leaves is a dreaded autumn chore. For me, it’s part of the process of renewing the soil in my vegetable gardens before putting my them to bed for the winter.

Unlike my neighbors across the street, who start their screaming leaf blowers at the first sign of a littered lawn, I like to wait until all the leaves are down and the garden is clean, which is usually sometime after Halloween. So for several weeks, their lawns are gleaming emerald expanses, while mine is more, uh, muted.

My equipment is decidedly low tech: a rake and tarp, maybe a pair of gloves, if it’s chilly. My approach is this: rake into piles, rake piles onto tarp, drag to garden, and dump, to a depth of a foot or two. (I don’t put leaves on crops that linger, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, and parsley. I simply mulch around them.) I’ve been using this approach for years, and soil is much improved by it.

  Safety disclaimer
Readers of a certain age (and with a certain sense of humor) may wish to consult the AARP’s safety tips for raking before undertaking this “moderate physical activity.”

Trust me: If you are an active gardener, you can easily handle raking.

Boring? Some would say so. But I work at it for an hour or two at a time. I don’t much like to hike during hunting season, so raking is a good excuse to be outdoors in crisp and energizing weather, and my mind is free to wander where it will. And sometimes I get help.

The leaves make a great mulch, and as they decompose they improve the texture and quality of the soil. In the spring, when I’ve decided where the beds will be, I just rake them off to the side.

  Compost pile in winter
   

When my vegetable gardens are covered, I top off the compost heap with whatever leaves remain. If I don’t have enough to do that, I just cross the street, tarp and rake in hand. The neighbors think they are getting a great deal and are happy to contribute. I’ve even been known to beg leaves from complete strangers, then load leaf bags into my car before the town crew can collect them.

Once the gardens have been cleaned and mulched and the compost heap is piled high with leaves, let it snow. We’re ready.

It's fall garden cleanup time More on fall gardening:

Plant a Green Manure or a Cover Crop This Fall
It’s Fall Garden Cleanup Time
Plant a Second Crop for a Bountiful Fall Harvest
Cold Frame Gardening
• Frost and the Fall Garden
Video: Fall Vegetable Garden 
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