Conversations about "leaving the leaves" have become a hot and heavy topic this season. As they decompose into organic matter, leaves provide nutrients (e.g., calcium, magnesium, etc.) to help build soil health. Leaves also provide protection for various insects and animals that benefit the soil.
Feeding the soil with leaves can help improve it so that it retains more water and nutrients, which can help decrease the need for additives in the future. This means that allowing the leaves to break down can save us time, energy, and resources both now and later. As Jay Ford, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a Virginia Soil Health Coalition Partner, shared, "Throwing out leaves is the same as throwing out nutrients and [money], and often leads to water pollution."
We recognize that leaving the leaves where they fall may not be the best option for some areas outside of a forest. However, we can still use leaves as valuable resources.
"Chop 'em up!" said Jeff Ishee, long-time market gardener, host of 4 The Soil: A Conversation podcast and On the Farm Radio. "They come out on the other side so fine, almost like dust. It's really satisfying to me to know that it will become earthworm food."
Ishee recommended using a lawn mower-blade extension to chop and mulch the leaves. These smaller pieces decompose faster while still covering the soil and providing nutrients like calcium and magnesium, as well as keeping the soil pH levels balanced.
Community Viability Extension Specialist Eric Bendfeldt recalled helping his neighbors rake the leaves at an early age. They wanted to avoid killing the grass and matting down the lawn when the leaves were so thick. The leaf piles could be collected, relocated into the woods, used for compost piles, or used in their gardens.
Ford also shared a few tips for collecting those piles of gold (and red, orange, and brown):
Avoid throwing away piles of leaves in plastic bags. When they sit in the landfill, they do not add to the soil and become wasted resources.
Pile them out of sight in your yard and use them in a compost bin. You can also use dried leaves as a soil amendment in the spring.
Use dried leaves in flower and perennial beds as an insulating mulch and natural source of calcium, magnesium, and other essential nutrients.
Connect with farmers and gardeners in your area to offer them this valuable resource
"Happy November everyone!" wrote Ford in his post about these tips. "Hope you have a great fall enjoying our amazing natural resources."