What to Do With Leaves: 7 Things

red rake leaning against a wooden bench beside a pile of fall leaves

Well, you have the Instagram-worthy pops of gold, yellow, red, and orange fall foliage you wanted from your trees. But perhaps you weren’t expecting All. Those. Leaves. What does one do with leaves, you ask? 

If your city or county won’t take them, or you want to recycle them for your own benefit, here are seven ideas for what to do with all of those fall leaves.

7 Things to Do With Fallen Leaves

1. Rake Them (Without Back Pain)

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The first step is to get leaves off the ground. Layers of leaves deprive grass of the light and air it needs to survive. You can use a leaf blower or a mower to remove them, but the time-honored method is to rake them. 

Raking can be a DIY chore, but if you don’t have time or have a physical limitation, you can hire someone to rake the leaves for you. Most homeowners pay around $300 for leaf removal.

If you decide to go the DIY route, here are a few quick tips:

Expect to rake more than once.  Start when 20% to 30% of the leaves have fallen. Waiting until leaves start to decompose makes them difficult to rake.

Use a leaf rake: The fan-shaped metal, bamboo, or plastic tines of a leaf rake are easy on your lawn, and a wide fan pulls more leaves with each pass. If leaves have piled under shrubs or in the garden bed, use a shrub rake, which looks like a mini garden rake. 

Use a tarp to remove leaves. Don’t make multiple trips to dispose of the leaves; rake them onto a tarp. Once the tarp is full (but not overflowing), grab the ends to close it. Then drag it to the area where you plan to work. You may need help if you’re working with a large tarp. 

The American Chiropractic Association offers tips on how to avoid back, neck, and shoulder strains:

  1. Wear supportive shoes, stand as straight as possible, and keep your head up as you rake or mow.
  2. Bend at the knees, not the waist, as you pick up equipment or a big pile of leaves.
  3. Make the leaf piles small enough to avoid back strain.

2. Make Organic Mulch

Photo Credit: Bobby McKay / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Does your garden need organic mulch?  You’re in luck because the raw materials are in your yard. Mulching is a DIY project with a big payback: It provides nutrients to your plants, plus  maintains moisture, protects roots, and blocks weeds. Here’s how to make mulch:

Shred the leaves. Run over dried leaves with your lawn mower, collecting the bits in the mower bag. Or pick them up with a leaf blower vacuum. (Bonus: This gets you out of raking.) No mower bag or leaf vacuum? Rake up the leaves, dump them into a trash can, and shred them with a weed trimmer.

Distribute. You can dump the leaf bits straight from the bag or transfer them to a tarp or bin if you want more control. Spread them on:

  • Trees and shrubs:  Put down a 3 to 6-inch layer, especially around any new plants.
  • Flower and vegetable gardens: Spread leaves 2 to 3 inches thick. If your climate allows you to grow vegetables in colder months, put down a thick layer of leaves between rows to use as a walkway in wet weather. 

3. Mulch Leaves Into the Lawn

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Your lawn can benefit from mulch, too. Like making garden mulch, mulching leaves into your lawn is an easy process: Just shred the dry leaves with your mower. But don’t bag the leaves, just allow them to lie where they fall. The leaf bits will settle between the grass blades, where microbes will start the decomposition process. 

Pro Tip: This works best if you don’t have a lot of leaves. After shredding, you should be able to see the grass. If all you can see are shredded leaves, there are too many, or they aren’t properly chopped. Here’s how to solve that:

  • For too many leaves, rake up the excess. You can use them for garden and landscape mulch or compost them.
  • Leaf bits too large? Go back over them with your mower until they’re the proper size.

4. Make Compost With Them

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Composting is a great way to keep all sorts of yard waste out of landfills — leaves included. It also saves you money. According to the PennState Extension, fallen leaves from a large shade tree can provide around $50 worth of plant food. To start:

Decide where to compost. You can build your own compost container or purchase a bin or a compost tumbler. Or start a compost pile in your backyard.

Gather your composting materials. Compost needs a balanced mix of green (nitrogen-based) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. 

 Green materials include:

  • Grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Food scraps

Brown materials include: 

  • Leaves
  • Evergreen needles
  • Twigs and wood chips
  • Paper and cardboard

Maintain the pile: Water enough to keep the pile moist, but don’t overwater. Turn over the pile every couple of weeks to give the microbes enough oxygen to work properly.

5. Amend the Soil With Leaf Mold

Leaf mold sounds, well, icky. But it’s a great thing for your fall garden.

Basically, leaf mold is decomposing leaves or leaf litter and adds organic matter to the soil. It acts as a natural soil conditioner, attracts earthworms, and helps the soil hold moisture. Various studies have shown using leaf mold in the garden increases yield and plant health and makes plants more resistant to disease.

Making leaf mold is similar to composting. But instead of using the bacterial process of compost, leaf mold is made through a fungal process. To start a batch of leaf mold:

Make a pile of leaves. Shade tree (or deciduous) leaves are best since they decompose more quickly than evergreen leaves. Shredding will speed the process. You can:

  • Pile them in an out-of-the-way spot.
  • Put them in a compost bin.
  • Stash them in a garbage bag.

Keep them damp. Fungi need adequate moisture to spread, but don’t overwater. And turn the pile occasionally for even decomposition.

Be patient. Depending on the type of leaves you use, it could take a year or two before you can place the leaf mold in your garden or around your landscaping plants.

Note: By themselves, leaves don’t offer much in the way of plant nutrition. You’ll still need to use fertilizer or your own organic compost along with your leaf mold.

 6. Use Them for Decorative Purposes

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Another way to recycle fallen leaves is to use them in seasonal crafts. Here are a few leaf craft project ideas for you or the kids to tackle:

  • Form a “flower” arrangement with twigs and leaves.
  • Adorn your mantel with branches and leaves.
  • Create a natural wreath using twigs, twine, and leaves.
  • Press leaves onto parchment paper, frame, and display.
  • Make an autumnal garland for your stairway or door frames.

7. Protect Plants and Animals From the Cold

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If you live in an area with harsh winters, your excess leaves can be used for another purpose — to shelter plants and animals from the cold. Here are a few tips on how to winterize your garden:

Insulate your plants: A freeze-thaw-freeze cycle can damage plants, so spread a 2 to 3-inch layer of shredded leaves in the garden to keep soil temperatures consistent.  Don’t use whole leaves, as they can prevent water from reaching plant roots.

Create a habitat for backyard animals. Beneficial insects and small animals, such as toads, turtles, and birds, take shelter in leaf cover during the winter.  If you have a large property, blow raked leaves into your tree line, or pile them along a fence to provide shelter.  


Can the Leaves From Any Tree be Used as Mulch?

No. Some leaves have chemicals that can stunt plant growth or prevent plants from growing altogether:

● Walnut leaves contain juglone, which stunts the growth of other plants.

● Eucalyptus leaves have phenolic acids, tannins, and flavonoids, which have been shown to prevent some plants from germinating.

● Camphor laurel leaves contain camphor that can prevent growth in some plants.

Why Shred Leaves Before Turning Them Into Mulch?

Chopped leaves break down faster. If left whole, leaves can clump together and suffocate your grass. Clumps of dead leaves also harbor mold and fungus that can destroy your grass. For best results, coarsely shred leaves before mulching them. 

I Don’t Have Many Trees. How Can I Make Mulch and Compost?

Fortunately, there are several ways to get leaves, other mulching materials, or even free mulch.

Ask around for leaves. Your neighbors, co-workers, or your Aunt Betty may be delighted to give you all the leaves you could possibly use, especially if you offer to rake them.

Add in grass clippings. Bag up the clippings from your summer lawn mowing and mix them with leaves to create compost. Or just use the clippings as mulch, but make sure they’re dry before spreading. Don’t use clippings from a lawn treated with herbicides.

Check with your city. Some cities offer mulch programs for residents. All you have to do is go to the designated pickup site. Don’t forget to bring a shovel and some kind of container. 

When to Call in the Pros

If you like the idea of recycling fallen leaves, but the thought of raking and shredding is too much, consider calling a professional lawn care company. Local pros have the equipment to collect your leaves more quickly and efficiently than you could do on your own. 

Freelance writer Lee Nelson contributed to this report.

Additional source:

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler is a writer and editor who loves crafting witty turns of phrase and informative, compelling copy on various topics. She especially enjoys sharing her knowledge of landscaping and pest management to help others create the outdoor spaces of their dreams.