Trees and river showing autumn leaf colour

How To Make The Most Of Autumn Leaves

Free soil conditioner from fallen autumn leaves

After we have enjoyed the flaming autumn spectacle put on by gorgeous deciduous trees the leaves start to fall and become a nuisance. They clog drains and gutters, make paths and patios hazardous, they can smother tiny alpine plants in rockeries and even kill lawn grass if drifts of them are left long enough. They can choke ponds and when they break down can reduce the oxygen content which can be a real problem if you have fish. Even if you don’t have fish and leave the leaves to decay in the pond, eventually you will be left with a smelly, boggy hole. The easiest way to stop the pond becoming choked is to place a fine mesh net over the top; if this is not practical then the only other way is to skim them off the top every couple of days.

Leaves are primarily used in the garden as a soil improver as they don’t contain any significant amounts of nutrients. If you have a woodland garden they can be left on the ground to let nature take its course, but in a more formal garden they become a nuisance and need to be gathered and utilised. The leaf mould they produce is ideal to help retain moisture in a sandy, free-draining soil and opens up the structure of a heavy clay soil which improves drainage. It also provides a beneficial environment for worms which are absolutely essential for a healthy soil as their holes provide drainage conduits and they excrete nutrients.

autumn leaves beneath tree

Collect the leaves every couple of days before any fungal spores have a chance to multiply or transfer to other plants. Collect by hand from around plants, sweep from hard surfaces and rake off lawns into piles, then the easiest way to pick them up is by using the large plastic grabbers available from garden centres and hardware stores. If you like using technology you can always use a leaf blower to gather them into piles.

What to do with the leaves

  • Compost. If you only have a few leaves just add them in layers to the compost heap.
  • Leaf mould. This is a really valuable soil enhancer and it’s free! Use it to add to your flower or vegetable beds or sieve it and mix with sieved loam and horticultural grit to provide an ideal potting mix for alpines. Gather leaves and place in heavy duty black plastic refuse sacks, make sure the leaves are damp, tie the top of the bag, pierce to give some airflow then leave in an out of the way spot for about a year. If you are using beech or oak leaves they may have to be left for up to 2 years as they contain high levels of tannin which takes longer to break down. You can also use thin open weave hessian sacks and the whole lot will then rot. If you have a lot of leaves construct a cage out of chicken wire about a metre square and pack in the leaves, again making sure they are wet. When you have finished, place a piece of thick black plastic over the top, this helps speed up the decomposition process.
  • Chop up. Spread the leaves over the lawn and go over them with the lawn mower until they are chopped up finely then sprinkle them over the herbaceous or vegetable beds and let the worms and fungi break them down.
  • Mulch. Mulch perennials with the leaves; spread a layer up to a 5cm (2”) thick around your perennials, taking care not to go right up to the stems of shrubs.
  • Hedgehog house. Make a hedgehog house out of a couple of cardboard boxes, cover with plastic to keep it waterproof then place some leaves inside and pile leaves over the top. Not only will this hide the little house but will keep the hedgehog warm in winter.
  • Crafts. Scour the internet for craft projects to do with your children.
  • Preserve. Use glycerine to preserve small branches, about 45cm (18”). Mix one part glycerine with 2 parts warm water and stand the stems in this mixture until the leaves are soft and pliable, about 1 – 3 weeks. Tougher leaves may need immersing in the mixture for 2 – 6 days. Just put one layer of leaves in the mix and weigh them down. When they are soft and pliable take them out and dry thoroughly.

Liquidamber

Liquidamber

So, whatever you do don’t burn them or put them into the grey wheelie bin; even if you can’t use them there will be allotmenteers nearby who would be only too glad of them.

Angela Slater
Daughter of a farmer so always used to producing something from the earth, whether it was animals or garden produce. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I also keep a few hens and grow vegetables for my own personal use. I gained a BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management. As a result of this I have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening.