CERTIFIED TEXAS EXPERT GARDENER — Fallen leaves are nature’s “gift” to gardeners

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Perhaps I’m going out on a “limb” (cheesy pun but I couldn’t help myself) though my guess is most of you fellow gardening enthusiasts have a differing opinion regarding fallen leaves than I do.

It is astounding how a few fallen leaves quickly amass, blanketing lawns, becoming makeshift dunes piled in curious places. Mother nature provides us with this bounty and we as “good” gardeners should make good use to the gift.

Dry leaves are easily managed and corralled by raking them into small piles, or if as some of you prefer, power equipment (leaf powers) make quick work of scattered leaves, especially if the is a structure to lodge them against, such as a building or a fence.

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Once the leaves are gathered into a location, and mounded together, there are several ways to utilize them in our gardens.

Perhaps some of you may find this a bit unusual but I enjoy raking leaves into small mounds.

Once leaves are mounded into small piles, several cattle panels (16’ panels) are placed strategically around my lawn’s perimeter (behind trees or between adjacent fencing) ensuring tidiness.

Each panel end is tied together forming a circle and filled with leaves, compressing the bundle as more leaves are added. It’s best to gather leaves while they are dry, since they tend to hold moisture readily.

Wet leaves clump quickly, matting together forming thick layers rendering most power equipment ineffective and making the corralling process cumbersome.

Deciduous trees lose their leaves beginning in the fall through winter. A survival mechanism which allows the tree to go dormant, conserving energy and water.

When leaves decompose, they return elemental nutrients to the soil, improving soil structure and leaves also provide habits for many animals, including much needed pollinators. Removing fallen leaves from the base of the tree canopy where they mound could inhibit many microorganisms, insects and small animals which are beneficial to the environment.

Raking, removing, and composting leaves may destroy the habitat of many small animals which require the cover of the leaves in the winter. Working with nature and the ecosystem, you are being a steward of the land while also improving the lawn.

Allowing the leaves to remain in place will provide a healthier “beneficial” insect and animal population in the spring. Gardeners, use this information as an opportunity to inform everyone who might ask notifying them that you are a “steward of the environment,” no one has to know the real reason (don’t like to rake).

Removing leaves could displace the following animals:

  • Frogs, Toads, Newts, Salamanders and other amphibians
  • Snails and Slugs
  • Crickets, Beetles, Millipedes, Centipedes and other insects
  • Field Mice
  • Spiders and other arachnids
  • Moths and butterfly pupae
  • Worms and other soil aerators
  • Bacteria, fungi and soil-improving microorganisms

Healthy insect populations require leaf litter in winter. Note these insect populations feed birds and predatory insects.

Allowing leaves to winter in place will form natural fertilizer improving the soil over time, while suppressing weeds.

My preference is to gather multiple piles of leaves, while allowing a blanket to remain in place.

Utilizing Leaves:

  • Place raked leaves on the perimeter of the lawn or corral them into bins or compost piles.
  • Rake leaves, placing them over garden beds as mulch for winter protection.
  • Use a mower with a mulching blade, shredding leaves into smaller pieces.
  • Place raked leaves around shrubs and trees, maintain a few inches distance from trunks.

Removing leaves:

Often there is a good reason to rake leaves to sustain lawn health or maintain a tidy-looking lawn.

There are some of you who have heard the following warnings about allowing leaves to remain on the lawn:

  • The lawn will be smothered if a thick layer of leaves is allowed to remain.
  • Leaves invite pests, disease or other serious lawn issues.
  • A leaf layer creates a barrier which blocks water and air flow from the lawns root system.
  • Wet leaves form a mat that is impenetrable for emerging grass in spring.

If leaves are wet and thickly matted, it will be exhausting to use a rake to remove the leaves. Instead consider using a lawn mower with mulching blade.

Raise the mowers deck height, to begin the mulching process without over-powering the equipment with too many wet leaves simultaneously.

This is a process and is best completed in stages. Every couple of weeks lower the mower deck height before mowing the lawn each time.

My preference is to rake for aesthetics, while using the raked leaves in multiple areas, such as around trees & shrubs, vegetable & flower gardens, as well as compost bins.

Mulching or mowing leaves from our lawns and allowing them to decompose into the grass and soil for the small animals to take advantage of is always good for the lawn.

So long for now fellow gardeners. Let’s go out and grow ourselves a greener, more sustainable world, one plant at a time!

Send Certified Texas Expert Gardener John Green your questions and please continue sending comments to jongreene57@gmail.com.