Use fall leaves on your garden

Fall Leaves – 3 Ways to Put Them to Work on Your Homestead

Do you love watching the trees turn colors in the fall, but dread the chore of raking up all those leaves and figuring out what to do with them? Well, I have 3 ways that you can turn fall leaves into a resource for your homestead.

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Fall Leaves as a Resource

Driving around my community in the fall, it seems that most people just view fall leaves as a waste and a chore.

Sure, kids may have fun jumping into a pile but otherwise the fallen leaves are just plain annoying.

You got to rake them, and bag them, and dispose of them...

But fall leaves can be a great resource for your homestead or garden.

Instead of an annoying chore, fall leaves can help you build soil, retain water, and work with nature. Fall leaves are so valuable that I collect over 100 bags of fall leaves from my neighbors for my homestead and garden!

3 ways to use fall leaves to improve your homestead or garden

  • 1
    Create leaf mold (also known as leaf compost) for your garden
  • 2
    Use fall leaves as mulch around your plants
  • 3
    Use fall leaves to prepare areas for future planting

In addition to these 3 methods, I have one more—focused on how fall leaves can help your lawn—as a bonus for you at the end of this post.

I have also created a simple, easy-to-print cheat sheet for you to help you turn mucky brown leaves into gold for your homestead or garden.

1. Create Leaf Mold for Your Garden

Making leaf mold from fall leaves

After sitting for 1 to 2 years, fall leaves become an amazing dark soil amendment that you and your garden will just love. Image of leaf mold by John Lord CC BY2.0

So, leaf mold is a bad name for something that can really help your garden and other plants thrive.

I mean does anyone ever say, “Give me some mold!”

So, what is leaf mold?

Leaf mold is essentially fall leaves that have decomposed over the course of 1 to 3 years, depending on your climate and how fine you want the leaves to breakdown.

In many ways you can think of leaf mold as compost that only uses fall leaves with nothing else added to it.

Perhaps we should just call it “leaf compost”.

Leaf mold is different than the compost you are likely familiar with for a few key reasons.

Unlike regular compost, leaf mold is driven by fungi instead of bacteria. This makes it slower, but you also don’t need to turn it or worry about reaching a proper temperature.

Leaf mold won’t heat up at all like regular compost.

And finally, unlike regular compost, leaf mold is poor in nutrients.

Yup, I said it. And that right there is a reason people may be reluctant to add it to their garden.

But here’s the thing.

Though poor in nutrients, it still provides some amazing benefits to your garden. For one thing, it creates an environment where earth worms and other beneficial soil life thrive.

Those critters bring the nutrients (Think worm castings that you can buy for your garden - you can get it for free).

So, leaf mold will still leave your soil more nutrient-rich than it started out.

Key Takeaway - Leaf Mold Benefits

Here is a rundown of some of the incredible things leaf mold does for your garden:

  • Improves soil structure, making it easier for your plants to grow.
  • Provides food and habitat for beneficial soil life (Bring on the earth worms!).
  • Increases the water retention of your soil by 50%! This is great for creating a low water garden.
  • Provides a great source of minerals for your plants (No need for rock dust).
  • Aerates clay soil and improves water retention in sandy soil.

How to Make Leaf Mold

Making bins for fall leaves to make leaf mold.

2 leaf mold bins at my Homestead just filled with fresh fall leaves. The bins are made out of untreated pallets with branches on top to keep the leaves in place.

The other awesome thing about leaf mold is that it is incredibly simple to make, and it takes very little work on your part.

I recommend making a bin out of old untreated pallets or something simple like chicken wire and a few wooden posts.

Then add the fall leaves to the bin. No greens like regular compost - just fall leaves.

I like regular leaves that have not been shredded since I’m not in a hurry, but you will get leaf mold quicker if the leaves are shredded first.

The main thing is to make the resulting pile of leaves at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall.

You also need to keep the pile moist. I put mine behind a metal shed so it won’t get too much direct sunlight.

Then, sit back and relax.

You don’t need to turn the pile or do anything with it until it is time to harvest the leaf mold. Just leave it alone and let nature do the work.

But this can take a while.

In a temperate climate, you will need to wait at least a year (and potentially 2) for the leaf mold to break down fully.

But during that time, you won’t be doing anything with the pile. You can almost forget it’s even there!

Lots of people have good luck harvesting leaf mold after 1 year during the fall.

Add the resulting leaf mold to your garden during the fall to let it breakdown a bit more and give the worms time to pull the leaf mold down into the soil before planting the following spring.

If you create a new pile after harvesting the leaf mold, you will have new leaf mold for your garden every year.

Your soil will simply be amazing.

Quick Tip - Where to get Fall Leaves

What if you don't have your own trees to get leaves from?

  • Ask your neighbors - use Nextdoor to find free mulch from your neighbors. I get fall leaves this way.
  • Talk to your city - some cities have programs where they will dump leaves at your house as long as you can take a minimum amount.
  • Look for bags placed out at the curb in the fall while driving around.

Use Fall Leaves as Mulch Around Your Plants

Fall leaves as mulch

My front garden area used to patchy grass mixed with gravel parking area. It has changed a lot and the leaves will help continue the progress.

While leaf mold is simple, there is an even easier way to use your fall leaves.

Just added them around your plants as a mulch.

Using leaves as mulch will provide all sorts of benefits for your plants.

Benefits of using fall leaves as mulch

  • 1
    Provide chemical free pest control by creating habitat for beneficial critters.
  • 2
    Provide food and habitat for beneficial soil life like earthworms.
  • 3
    Keep your soil from drying out.
  • 4
    Improve your soil overtime, just like leaf mold.

Placing fall leaves around your plants provides most of the same benefits as leaf mold. But you will need to be okay with having fall leaves around your plants.

Personally, I don’t have an issue with this, but I know some people don’t like the aesthetics of it. But the way I see it, the benefits are just so great that it seems like a no-brainier to me.

Of course, if you don’t want to put fall leaves around your plants, you can just use leaf mold instead.

To use fall leaves as mulch, just place them around your plants about 4 to 6 inches thick.

The leaves will compress a bit overtime.

If your soil has a good amount of soil life, the leaves will breakdown by the following summer. If you don’t have good soil life, they may stick around a while longer.

But adding leaves will help bring your soil to life.

So if you keep adding leaves every fall, it won’t be long before your soil will be so full of life that it will quickly break down the leaves, providing nutrients and other benefits to your plants.

Key Takeaway

Fall leaves can be placed as mulch around your plants. Place them about 4 to 6 inches deep in the fall.

Should You Shred the Leaves?

Leaf shredder

An example of a leaf shredder available from Amazon and other locations. Image from Amazon.

I don’t see a need to shred leaves before adding them around my plants. Some people recommend doing this in order to speed things up, but if you build good soil life the leaves will break down quickly regardless.

Shredding the leaves can also minimize any issues with the leaves matting together.

But no one is shredding the fall leaves in the forest, and they breakdown quickly on their own. My goal as a Wild Homesteader is to work with nature and let the soil life do more work for me like shredding!

If you do want to shred your leaves there are several options.

3 ways to shred fall leaves

  • 1
    If the leaves are dry, just jump up and down on the pile—or let your kids do it! This is the only type of shredding that I’m likely to do.
  • 2
    Drive over the leaves with a lawnmower and rake up the shredded leaves, or have the mower bag them for you.
  • 3
    Buy a leaf shredder.

Use Fall Leaves to Prepare Areas for Future Planting

Use fall leaves to prep future planting areas.

I use cardboard, burlap bags, and newspaper with thick layers of fall leaves on top to prepare areas for future plantings.

This is very similar to using fall leaves as mulch, but instead of putting the leaves around your existing plants, this method gets an area ready for future planting.

Say you have a grassy area that you want to turn into a garden or plant fruit trees. How would you go about getting that area ready?

There are several options, but if you have a lot of fall leaves then you can use them to help you.

First, you will want to add a layer of cardboard, newspaper, or burlap bags down on top of the grass.

Then add the fall leaves on top of the first layer. The leaves should be at least 6 inches thick, and I like to go even thicker if I have enough leaves.

This method is called sheet mulching, and Gaia’s Garden has a great overview of how this works.

Over time, the cardboard, newspaper, or burlap bags will breakdown—but not before the grass underneath it has been killed and decomposed. The leaves will also slowly break down.

The result?

An area that was just unproductive grass has been turned into a fantastic bed of soil for next spring’s garden.

I have used this method to transform an old degraded grass and gravel parking area into a food forest (an orchard that mimics the structure of a forest).

The soil went from being so hard that I could not dig into it, to being soft enough for me to plant fruit trees.

Key Takeaway

In the fall, place cardboard, paper, or burlap bags down first over an area you want to prep for future plantings.


Then add a layer of leaves 6 inches thick.


Next spring you will have a fantastic area for growing new plants.

Bonus: Using Fall Leaves on Your Lawn

Mow fall leaves

Mulching lawnmowers can chop up the leaves so much that they just disappear into the grass. No need to rake and remove the leaves. Image - CC0 Public Domain Picture.

These 3 methods may all be great, but I bet your still planning on raking them up from your lawn. If you want to use the leaves to create leaf mold or mulch, then awesome!

But, if you are still just bagging the leaves up and hauling them away, there is a much easier option.

Leaves that fall on your lawn can just be left where they are and then mowed instead of being raked. If you use a mulching lawnmower the leaves will be chopped up finely enough that you will barely notice them.

By doing this, you will be improving your lawn over time instead of spending time and energy removing the leaves that could benefit your lawn.

Key Takeaway

Mow the leaves covering your lawn with a mulching lawnmower and just leave the shredded leaves where they are. This will improve your lawn's soil and save you time and energy.

Use Fall Leaves on Your Homestead or in Your Garden

Use fall leaves on your homestead.

Fall leaves are a great resource for your homestead and garden. I can't get enough of them on my homestead.

Fall leaves are an amazing resource that comes to your homestead free of charge every year. This post covered 3 ways you can use fall leaves on your homestead or in your garden.

3 ways to use fall leaves to improve your homestead or garden

  • 1
    Create leaf mold (also known as leaf compost) for your garden
  • 2
    Use fall leaves as mulch around your plants
  • 3
    Use fall leaves to prepare areas for future planting

Don’t throw away this amazing resource that can provide so much benefit to your homestead or garden.

I go out of my way to collect bags of leaves from my neighbors, and while I love getting the leaves from them, I wish they would all start using the leaves on their own properties.

So, how do you use fall leaves? Do you have any other methods that you would like to share? Please leave a comment below sharing how you plan to use fall leaves.

Before you go, don’t forget to grab your free, easy-to-print cheat sheet to make it easy for you to use fall leaves on your homestead or garden.


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Daron

Daron is the homesteader and blogger behind Wild Homesteading. With years of experience in gardening, permaculture, homesteading, and environmental restoration Daron's goal is to share his knowledge with all of you so you can work with nature to build your homestead and grow your own food. In addition, to running this site Daron is a restoration ecologist managing the restoration program for a local non-profit and a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to a perfect little boy.

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