Fall Composting: How to Make the Most of Autumn Leaves

Bagging autumn leaves for the garbage dump is such a waste. You spend all of that time and effort raking, and you don’t even get anything out of it. This year, take advantage of autumn leaves to grow a healthier garden and lawn.

You can make the most out of autumn leaves by mulching them on your lawn, using them to cover your garden beds for winter, and adding them to your compost pile. You can even make a compost pile solely of leaves. Just make sure you know which species of tree the leaves come from, as some need additional considerations.

Making the Most of Your Fall Leaves

1. First Know What Tree Species You’re Dealing With

fall oak tree

Most tree leaves are perfectly fine to use, but there’s a few to watch out for.

Oak tree leaves are more acidic than other leaves, and if you use too many, your compost may become too acidic for your plants. Use other species and carbon sources to balance them out.

Black Walnut leaves are tricky. Black Walnuts are notorious among gardeners because they transmit juglone, a chemical that prevents many plant species from germinating. Roots have the highest concentration and prove the most problematic. Leaves also contain juglone, although they have their highest concentration in the spring. This concentration wanes by the fall and a well-managed compost pile will break down the remaining juglone. Like with oak leaves, incorporate other tree leaves into your pile if you can.

2. You Can Mulch the Leaves On Your Lawn

mulch lawn with mower

If you have a small amount of leaves on your lawn, you can mulch them with your lawn mower instead of raking them. Fall leaves are beneficial to your grass and return nutrients taken up by trees to the soil. Take a couple passes in different directions to break the leaves into small pieces. Smaller pieces break down faster and don’t block sunlight.

Take off the bag attachment if you’re mulching the lawn. But if you’d like to mulch leaves for your compost bin, use the bag attachment so you can easily tip them in.

You can even leave leaves on your lawn if they cover less than 20% of the grass. Any more than that, and the leaves will block out too much sun and encourage snow mold and critter damage.

3. Cover Up Your Garden Beds For Winter

rake leaves put them in garden as cover

In nature, tree leaves fall from trees and cover up plants and soil over the winter. This cover protects perennial plants, beneficial microbes, earthworms, and other beneficial insects from the cold. Meanwhile, the leaves decompose to return nutrients to the soil. We can mimic this natural process by just not raking up the leaves in our garden beds or by ranking leaves off the lawn onto the garden bed.

Read our related post “Should I Cover My Garden in the Winter?” here.

4. Build Up Your Backyard Compost Bin

fall compost bin

While mulching your lawn and covering your garden beds are the easiest way to make the most use of autumn leaves, composting them is also a great option.

And if you don’t have a compost bin yet, autumn is the best time to start one. You have an ample supply of carbon and nitrogen sources as you clean up your yard and garden. Composting doesn’t have to be difficult. You can even compost in a plastic bag.

A few extra tips for composting in the fall include:

1) Keep the Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio Balanced

When you have an abundance of autumn leaves, it’s easy to put too much carbon in your compost bin. The carbon-nitrogen ratio of leaves depends on the species, ranging from 30:1 to 80:1. While it’s not a dire mistake and one that’s easy enough to rectify, too much carbon will slow the composting process. The microbes decomposing the material need nitrogen to grow and thrive. Leaves by themselves take months to decompose.

If you find your compost is too slow or cold, then take out some leaves and/or add nitrogen.

2) Mulch Leaves

The smaller the pieces of organic material are, the faster they decompose. If you have a lawn mower with a bag, then run the mower over the leaves to give them an initial mulch, then add the bag for a second pass. This process also saves you the trouble of raking up leaves.

3) Add Leaves In Small Batches And Mix The Pile

If you add too many leaves in at one time, the leaves will mat together when wet. Matted leaves create a barrier that air and water can’t pass through. And this barrier will remain for quite some time, as leaves take a long time to decompose. So add leaves in small batches and mix up your compost pile to break up the layers. Mixing your pile will help it heat up for faster decomposition.

4) Save Extra Leaves For Later Use

If you still have leaves left over, just bag them to use later. If you add kitchen waste to your compost during the winter, you can add a layer of dried leaves on top to keep the compost balanced. If you don’t compost during the winter, they’ll also keep until spring.

5) Use Leaf Composting For Your Extra Leaves

You can also start the composting process for your extra leaves through leaf composting. You can use either a big pile (at least 4 feet in diameter by 3 feet tall) or bag them. Dampen the leaves to provide water for microbes and then protect the pile from rain and snow. You can either throw them into your compost bin as needed or wait until they decompose into leaf mold. Leaf mold takes 4 to 12 months to make, and it’s great to use as a mulch or for soil conditioning.

Final Thoughts

Use your autumn leaves! By taking advantage of them, you’re returning valuable nutrients back into the soil while making your garden healthier.

Leave a Comment