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Using Leaves As Mulch for Your Garden

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Pea plants growing up a homemade trellis with shredded leaves around them on the ground as a mulch.

This year I decided to try something different with my garden that I haven’t really tried before: using leaves as mulch in my garden. In the past I’ve used leaves as a mulch over the winter by leaving a layer of them to cover my garden in the fall rather than raking them all up. But this year is the first year that I’m going to try using leaves as mulch during the growing season. So if you’re looking for mulch ideas for your garden and you’re thinking about using leaves as mulch for your garden, hopefully some of the information that I’ve learned and that I’m going to be using this year will be helpful to you.

Benefits of Using Mulch in Your Garden

If you’ve never used any type of mulch in your garden before, here is a brief summary of a few reasons why mulch is typically recommended for most gardens:

  • Mulch helps to cover the soil to reduce weeds
  • Mulch helps to keep moisture in the soil so it doesn’t dry out as quickly
  • Mulch helps to protect the soil from eroding
  • Mulch eventually breaks down and adds organic matter to the soil
  • Mulch helps to attract earthworms that benefit the soil

There are lots of different options for mulch materials that gardeners typically use. Some of the most common ones are: straw, wood chips, cover crops that have been terminated, and leaves. If you’re interested in learning more about the different options of mulch and how each one works, this YouTube video from Blossom and Branch Farm about mulches in the garden is a great overview of different mulch materials, and it’s one of the many videos I watched when I was planning on incorporating leaves into my garden more this year.

I haven’t used wood chips or terminated cover crops as a mulch in my garden yet, but I may consider using them in the future. I’ve used straw before, though, and overall I thought that straw worked well as a mulch, but there are a couple of reasons why I think leaves might end up being a better option for me. For one thing, I’ve heard that straw can sometimes be contaminated with herbicide residue that can cause issues with your garden and potentially even kill your plants (You can read more about herbicide contamination in this article by the Prairie Homestead.) In the past I was able to get some organic salt marsh hay to use as mulch that hopefully wouldn’t have the herbicide issue, but it was relatively expensive and a bit inconvenient for me to get. Leaves, on the other hand, seem like they could be an ideal mulch for a few different reasons.

Benefits of Using Leaves Rather Than Other Options as Mulch

Leaves Are Free

If you live somewhere with trees in your yard then you probably have an abundance of leaves that you end up raking up at the end of the year and putting in barrels or bags by the street for the town to pick up (or dragging on a tarp to the back of your property, or however you end up dealing with leaves where you live.) But for most people leaves are a completely free resource that just fall from the trees every year and you don’t have spend any money to buy something as a mulch material.

Leaves Aren’t Usually Contaminated with Herbicides

This might not necessarily always be true depending on where you live, but most likely the leaves on your trees aren’t being sprayed with herbicides or with other chemicals that could affect your garden like straw sometimes is. If you live in a private yard where you get to control what happens to the trees on your property then you probably don’t have to worry about your leaves being sprayed with any chemicals (unless you have trees by the side of the road and your town sprays them for some reason.) So leaves can be a great free mulch source without the same concerns about herbicides or other chemicals that straw can sometimes have.

Leaves Are Convenient

Leaves are a convenient mulch in the sense that you don’t have to go out to any store to buy them. Especially if you live in an area where good quality mulch materials require a bit of a distance to drive to, leaves are a much more convenient option because they are right in your yard and you most likely would have had to rake some of them up off of the lawn anyways.

Leaves Are Always Available

If you’re buying mulch from someplace else then availability could potentially be an issue, depending on the supply. When I used to get salt marsh hay from a local farm, for example, I never knew exactly when it would be available and so it was a bit inconvenient to not know for sure if it would be available and when it would be available. And because the supply was somewhat limited there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t run out of it if I wasn’t able to go and get some right away. Leaves, though, will fall from the trees year after year, and as long as the trees are still there then they are always available.

What Type of Leaves to Use As Mulch

Ideally, it’s best to use leaves that have been shredded up rather than using whole leaves in your garden. As I mentioned in my blog post about using chickens in my garden, I actually let my chickens shred some leaves up for me this past fall and winter. I took some of the leaves that fell in the autumn and put them in their run as bedding and let them do what they love to do and scratch through the leaves looking for bugs. Within just a couple of weeks they had a pretty decent sized pile shredded up nicely into little pieces and they had a blast doing it, too!

As far as the particular tree that the leaves come from, though, I haven’t heard or read anything specific about one type being better than another except for a video I saw on YouTube (I don’t remember the name of the video because I watched it awhile ago), and this video was saying that if you are using whole leaves rather than shredded leaves, oak leaves can be one of the best types to use because of the way that they curl a bit when they are dry. This curling keeps oak leaves from forming a thick mat like flatter leaves such as maple leaves tend to do.

The leaves I’m using on my garden are a mix of oak and maple because those are the main types of trees that are in my yard. I’m using mostly shredded leaves that my chickens shredded for me, but I’m also using a few whole leaves from last fall that have broken down a bit over the winter and early spring.

My Experience With Using Leaves As Mulch So Far

Just from keeping leaves on the ground over the winter time I’ve been able to see first hand how having a layer of leaves really helps to attract earthworms to the garden because when I raked aside that layer of the leaves in the spring to put in my seeds and plants I could see lots of earthworms in my soil just under the layer of leaves.

So far I’ve put leaves as a mulch only around my peas and some of my potato plants because most of the other warmer weather things I planted this past month are either too small to put mulch around yet or they are seeds that haven’t even sprouted yet, so I’ll probably be waiting a couple of more weeks before I put more mulch in my garden. Just from the couple of things I’ve mulched so far, though, I can already tell that I’m probably going to run out of leaves this year. I’ll definitely have to plan on saving more leaves aside next year now that I know I need more of them.

I’ve also realized that it takes a pretty thick layer to act as a barrier to weeds. I put a fairly thin layer of leaves around my peas because I was trying to save some of the leaves for other parts of my garden, and I didn’t do as thorough of a job of getting rid of all of the weeds around the peas first before I put the leaves down, so I’m definitely noticing some weeds still poking through the leaves. So I’m not expecting the leaves to work completely as a weed deterrent for this year, and I will hopefully be able to put a thicker layer around my plants next year.

Even though I won’t be able to take full advantage of the weed supressing benefits of leaf mulch this year in my garden, I’m still hoping that my garden will be improved by some of the other benefits of leaf mulch such as keeping moisture in the soil (and allowing me to go longer in between watering my plants), protecting the soil, and helping to increase the organic matter in the soil.

I’m excited to see how using leaves as mulch in my garden this year will allow me to make use of a free resource that was already in the yard to help to improve my garden and the health of my soil.

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Pea plants growing up a homemade trellis with shredded leaves around them on the ground as a mulch with a text overlay that says "Using Leaves As Mulch In Your Garden."
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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