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Six ways to use your fallen leaves

by Emma Cooper

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credit: Emma Cooper

If you’re lucky enough to have trees in or around the garden, then you’ll probably find yourself dealing with fallen leaves in the aftermath of their glorious autumn show. They can be a real nuisance – clogging up ponds, killing off the lawn and making paths very slippery as they begin to rot down. So once they start to pile up, it’s time to get out the rake and collect them.

You might be tempted to throw your leaves away, but before you do, have a look at all the different ways they can be useful.

1. Make leafmould

Leafmould is a compost made entirely from leaves, and if you’ve got plenty of the raw material to hand then it’s very easy to make. Simply pile up your leaves in a heap or in a simple mesh cage. Alternatively, you can rake your leaves into plastic sacks with air holes punched in and hide them away in a dark corner. In two or three years your leaves will have rotted down into leafmould that makes a lovely soil improver or a perfect ingredient for homemade potting mixes. If you can’t wait that long, then you can use leafmould after a year, as a coarse mulch, that will protect plant roots from the cold in winter, cut down on the need for weeding and watering in the summer and gradually improve the soil. Alternatively, use this type of leafmould as a water-retentive base layer for containers to save money on potting compost.

Leafmould is normally made from deciduous leaves that fall to the ground in autumn. Leaves and needles from evergreen trees are best kept separate, and can be rotted down on their own to make leafmould for acid-loving plants such as heathers, blueberries and cranberries.

If you don’t have the space to make leafmould, or a lot of leaves, there are still plenty of other ways to make use of this autumn bounty.

2. Make compost

If you’re a composter then small batches of leaves can be mixed into your regular compost heap to rot down, particularly if you have nitrogen-rich kitchen waste or grass clippings to balance them out (fallen leaves are ‘browns’, rich in carbon). If you can shred the leaves, or run the mower over them, before you put them in the compost bin, they will rot down more quickly. If you don’t have a heap of your own then you can always send your leaves away for composting if your council offers green waste collections.

3. Nourish the lawn

Although fallen leaves can be bad for lawns, they can also be useful. Spread them around fairly evenly, raise the blades on your lawn mower to their highest setting and then mow over the leaves to chop them up. These chopped leaves gradually rot down and improve the soil, without leaving damaged patches (providing you haven’t got deep drifts of leaves to deal with).

4. Protect your soil

In a natural habitat, falling leaves protect plants from winter weather and stop heavy rain from leaching nutrients out of the soil. You can achieve the same effect in the garden by covering bare soil with your fallen leaves, mulching around hardy shrubs and piling a thick protective layer around anything a bit more tender. Remove the leaves in spring to allow new growth through.

5. Help wildlife over winter

Tuck small piles of leaves into nooks and crannies in the garden, and create a winter refuge for larger wildlife. Anywhere they won’t be an eyesore or a problem will do – under a hedge is ideal. This can be a fun project for kids – they’ll enjoy seeking out perfect spots for these wildlife ‘hotels’, and then monitoring what moves in as time goes past. Be a bit wary of digging into deep drifts though, as you might rouse a hibernating hedgehog from its slumber!

6. Fuel the fire

If you have an open fire or a wood-burning stove, then you can even use a log maker to turn dried leaves and other combustible materials (like twigs, newspaper and cardboard) into fuel for the long winter evenings. Again, this is a good way to get the kids outside on nice days – scavenging for suitable materials, turning the patio into a production line and then safely storing the ‘logs’ away for when they’re needed.

Emma Cooper is a writer, gardener and Master Composter. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband Pete and five pet chickens. Find out more at www.emmacooper.org.

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