How to use all those fall leaves

Fall foliage colors have not been exactly what we have grown to enjoy in previous years. The drought has played a big part in those missing colors. There is some color to be sure, and maybe we will get some of that intensity we want, but I would not count on it given we are well into October. If we get a killing frost, any color stops there. Colorful fall foliage or not, once the leaves come down in abundance, what to do with them will be the challenge.

Natural woodland areas

If you are out there in the country with natural woodlands, leaves play a part in preserving the natural habitat of native trees, shrubs, and flowers. If that is the case, just let those leaves lie. The leaves will decompose and return valuable nutrients to the soil to be used by the soil microbes that in turn support plant growth.

Lawn and tree areas

Where your lawn and trees exist together, mulching in the leaves with a mower lets the small pieces fall between grass blades, benefiting the soil, trees, and lawn. At some point there can be more leaves than can be mulched in. This is the time then to mow and bag the leaves, so as to not smother the lawn. (More on those leaves and grass clippings you bagged in a minute.)

Vegetable garden

Where the vegetable garden is adjacent to the lawn, consider either mowing or blowing the leaves in to the beds to be worked in either yet this fall or left as a mulch layer for the soil and worked into the soil next spring.

Compost piles or bins

Now back to the leaves you have collected with the lawn mower. Consider using them to start a compost pile or build upon the one you already have. That bag contains the two primary ingredients, browns and greens.

When considering where to place the compost pile or bins, think about the shady areas in the yard where the grass does not do well anyway. The traditional compost pile will need to be 4- to 5-feet square at the base to be large enough to support composting with a height of about 4 feet. If composting needs to look a bit neater, then you can build or buy composting bins.

Compost recipe

In addition to the browns and greens, like those grass clippings and leaves in your mower bag this fall, there are other ingredients for good compost.

As you create the compost pile or fill the bin, some garden soil should be sprinkled in as you go to provide the pile with the microbes that will be breaking down the organic matter into compost.

Since organic matter is naturally acidic, about a half-pound of a finely ground limestone should be added for every cubic yard of material; this also could be sprinkled in as you build up the compost pile/bin. Your compost recipe is almost complete. Once the composting pile has been created, the final ingredient needed is water. If the pile remains too dry, no breakdown occurs. If left too wet, an anaerobic condition and decay occur, giving you a very smelly, and potentially a slimy mess to deal with.

Fresh kitchen produce peelings can be added into the compost pile or bin year-round. They provide some of the moisture that is needed during the summer and after they have frozen and thawed from the winter months, provide moisture again.

If you are lacking in the fallen leaves department, just ask the neighbors who have bags sitting out at the curb. Don’t let that good organic matter get away, compost it instead.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.