Ideas for putting fallen leaves to good use

By Bonnie Orr
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

pile of dry oak leaves.
Are those fallen leaves in your backyard added work for you? Yes. Are they a potential asset for your garden? Also, yes, writes WSU Master Gardener Bonnie Orr. In this week’s column, she offers tips on how to put leaves to good use. – Unsplash/Annie Spratt
Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – photo by Don Seabrook, Wenatchee World

The autumn days are noticeably cooler and have fewer hours of light. These are the signals to trees to prepare for dormancy, so they get ready to shed their leaves. Not only do deciduous trees lose their leaves but so do conifers. Conifers shed the needles at the back of the branches nearest the trunk.

Let’s hope for lots of deciduous leaves this autumn. We missed the leaf drop last year because the weather was so warm until November. This caused the tree to hold on to its leaves.

Usually, a tree cuts off the water to the leaves, and the chlorophyll dies. This is why leaves ‘turn color.’ An abscission layer of cells cuts off the water and causes the leaf to eventually fall from the tree. Often the leaf drop is accelerated by wind or heavy rain or even snow.

A large maple tree can grow up to 300,000 leaves. What to do with the leaves? Most people sweep the leaves from the turf because heavy layers of wet leaves can smoother the grass crowns and kill them.

Leaves are not just a nuisance but also an asset in the garden.

Now, what to do with a million leaves

If possible, grind up the larger leaves with the lawn mower or the chipper. They will break down more quickly and be less likely to be blown around by the wind.

Piling them up on the veggie garden about 8 inches deep will keep down spring weeds, feed the worms all winter and enrich the garden’s soil. You will be amazed at how few of the leaves are left when you go to plant your veggie garden.

Cover the ground-up leaves with a tarp to keep them dry so you have the brown material you need to mix with green material for next year’s compost pile.

Pile the leaves 8-10 inches deep to deliberately smother the turf to prepare to create a new flowerbed.

Use them as mulch in your existing flowerbeds to protect perennials’ crowns, enrich the soil and deter weeds. I am amazed how rich my sandy soil has become as a result of using leaf mulch each fall. The worms take the leaves down into the soil to provide water-hold capacity, and their castings or droppings provide nutrients for the roots of the plants.

Place leaves in large plastic bags — not to throw them in the trash, but to use as insulation for your compost pile. Placing the bags around the pile or compost bin will keep the pile from freezing, and it will continue to work, albeit slower, all winter long.

Make a big pile and have a treasure hunt or a children’s wonderful play day with cider and cookies.

Leaves are a gift the tree provides us.

A WSU Chelan and Douglas County Master Gardener column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. To learn more, visit or call (509) 667-6540.