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Use dead leaves to fertilize and protect plants

Dead leaf mulch

In fall, when trees and shrubs lose their foliage, a thick blanket of useful dead leaves forms in the garden.

It is the season to unclog gutters and pick up leaves, and use them for gardens and vegetable plots to make the soil fertile and protect more vulnerable plants.

In the garden, everything has a purpose and nothing is lost. Here is how to turn your dead leaves into something incredibly useful.

Dead leaves to use in the garden

Though all types of leaves will have their uses, it’s good to know that different types of leaves are suited to different purposes.

Use healthy leaves

Dead leaves about to fall in the gardenNot all dead leaves are healthy leaves. Check that leaves you are using are parasite, fungus, and disease-free because these might overwinter and reappear in spring.

Most fungus tend to overwinter and then come back stronger than ever when the sun shines again. The only solution is to destroy these with fire.

Avoid leathery leaves if your goal is to enrich the soil

Some leaves take a very long time to break down, such as bay leaves, plane tree leaves or wild privet. These can take years to break down. Their nutrients won’t be available for plants to use immediately.

  • Leathery leaves, however, are great if you want to keep weeds out. They’ll bring you all the advantages of a slowly-decomposing organic mulch.
  • Thick, slow-to-break-down leaves are excellent to prepare home-made soil mix: dry them well and crush them. They will provide structure that aerates the soil.
  • In shrub beds, for instance, long-lasting leaves will hinder weed growth for two or three seasons.
  • Thick, glossy leaves won’t change the acidity as they break down, unlike another plant-based mulch, pine bark.

Other shrubs or trees that drop thick, leathery leaves include holly, yaupon, mahonia, a host of palm shrubs. Many larger heath plants like camellia and magnolia also have thick, hard-to-break-down leaves.

Dead leaves protect against freezing

When winter tiptoes in and the first frost spells appear, good mulch can protect even the most vulnerable plants.

Dead leaves protect freezingMany bulb and tuber flowers such as dahlia and gladiolus, tuberous begonia, and also Lily of the Nile are vulnerable to the cold and require a good winter cover. For this, protect them with a cover of dead leaves about 16 inches (40 cm) thick.

Note that if your area has really harsh winters, it is best to bring bulbs and tubers indoors during winter, because dead leaves might not be enough.

If you have a banana tree, make a circle around its leaves with wire fencing and fill it with a very thick layer of dead leaves, around 32 inches (80 cm) thick, even up to 40 inches (1 m). You can also do this for new plants.

Dead leaf fertilizer for the vegetable patch

Organic material – for free!

Remember that dead leaves are an incredible source of organic material for all your plants, including the soil in your vegetable patch.

Nutrients and winter protection for root veggies

Where only root vegetables survive winter trials, you can spread a thick layer of dead leaves over the entire vegetable plot, and as they break down they will free organic material.

This thick layer will support the local ecosystem during winter, and worms and other insects will keep working to make the earth a better place.

Dead leaves can also serve to protect root vegetables that were not yet harvested against freezing, and this will ease the task of harvesting since you only collect as much as you need.

Winter cover for fragile vegetables

Some biennial vegetables such as artichoke need to be protected against winter cold.

  • Together with ridging, a cover of dead leaf mulch will protect the plant from the cold.

Dead leaves, a great weed killer

Dead leaves hinder weed growth, which will make that an easier task when the sunny days are back.

  • Sprouting weeds have trouble weaving their way up through a thick layer of leaves.
  • If a seed falls on tops of a pile of leaves and sprouts, it dries up before the root can make it to the ground.

Mulch and dead leaves work together

If you still have dead leaves left over after all these recommendations, still, don’t do away with them!

Dead leaves in the gardenLeaves are a great type of mulch for all your flower beds, and they will reduce weed growth while enriching the soil.

Just like they do in the vegetable patch, leaves make underground life easier and this promotes humus and micro-organism development.

Last of all, if any dead leaves are left over, throw them onto the compost, where again, choosing healthy leaves is a prerequisite.

Smart tip about using dead leaves in the garden

Ask around the neighborhood – many neighbors simply dispose of their raked leaves in bags. Knock on their door to ask if you can use them yourself!

  • Return the bags if they’re in good enough shape instead of discarding them to reduce waste.

Images: CC BY 2.0: John Brighenti; Pixabay: Melanie, Myléne, Pascal Robert, Olga Savich
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