Fall Leaves: A Nuisance or a Resource

November 17, 2021


Raked Leaves

Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Agent

Each fall many homeowners across the state enjoy the vibrant colors that our trees provide as leaves change colors, but come winter, leaves begin to fall and cover lawns and yards creating yet another chore. Raking, piling, and bagging unwanted leaves represents a time-consuming and labor-intensive job that comes at a time when many homeowners and gardeners are looking for a break from a long summer of tending and managing their yards and gardens. I have some not-so-pleasant memories from my youth of raking leaves in the fall when I visited my cousins who had an abundance of deciduous trees around their home. It seems that we kids were expected to rake leaves before we were able to go hunting, ramble through the woods, play football or any of the many other activities country boys would rather have been doing in the fall.

Tree leaves that accumulate around the yard represent an often overlooked resource that can provide nutrients and organic matter for use in your flower beds or gardens. Experts tell us that one acre of forest can provide approximately two tons of leaves each fall depending on which part of the country you are from. In natural settings, leaves that blanket the soil surface can provide erosion control, conserve moisture, and regulate soil temperatures. Leaves contain fifty to eighty percent of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air during the growing season. So, it seems a shame for this valuable resource to end up in a landfill. Recycling leaves and yard waste instead of landfilling them not only saves valuable landfill space, but it also can provide a source of fertility for other plants around the yard and garden if properly managed. So, what are some alternatives to bagging and landfilling your leaves? Options for managing and using your leaves include the following

  • Leaf management- mowing: A very light covering of leaves can be chopped or shredded with a lawnmower and left on the lawn. If one has access to a mulching mower this method is likely the most efficient way to handle light leaf drops or situations with just a few small trees in the landscape.
  •  Leaf management- mulching: Mulching can be an effective way to utilize and recycle leaves. Mulches reduce soil moisture evaporation rates, inhibit weed germination and growth, reduce soil erosion, crusting, and soil compaction, and moderate soil temperatures. Nutrients are also released into the soil as organic matter decomposes. Mulch can be added to gardens and flower beds to improve soil quality. A mower with a bagging attachment is a quick and easy way to collect and shred leaves for mulching. Shredded leaves will decompose faster than unshredded leaves and are less likely to blow around on windy days than whole leaves.
  •  Leaf management- soil improvement: Leaves can be collected and incorporated directly into our soils. Leaves tilled into clay soils can improve drainage and aeration, leaves incorporated into sandy soils can improve nutrient and moisture retention. Collecting and amending soils with leaves in gardens and flower beds in the fall will allow time for leaves to decompose before spring planting.
  •  Leaf management- composting: Composting has a long history dating back to the early Greeks and Romans. Closer to home in America, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington Carver all recognized the value of composting. This technique is simply controlling the natural decay of organic matter, leaves in this case, by providing the right environment (microorganisms, nitrogen, air, and water) for composting critters (bacteria, fungi, etc.) to convert yard waste into a useable product. Composted organic matter, when added to the soil improves soil quality, water retention, and nutrient availability. Think of compost as an amendment, not a fertilizer since nutrient content is low and release is slow. Recycling leaves and other yard waste are not with some challenges. Diseases and insect pests can overwinter in leaves; avoid composting diseased, insect-infested plant material as well as weed seeds.

Improving your soil is the first step toward growing healthy plants. Proper leaf management can be a useful tool for many homeowners and gardeners. For more information on leaf management check out the following Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Fact Sheets: 1600 and 1604.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer.


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