7 Ways to Use Fall Leaves on Your Lawn or Garden

A pile of autumn leaves with a rake.

The neighborhood kid has quit, your back is killing you, and all of the massive leaf bags are sold out. It's fall and you're ready to get these pesky leaves off your lawn, but you can't seem to catch a break. The good news is life just got a whole lot easier and your garden and lawn will thank you tenfold for making a few simple changes to your fall cleanup routine.

The truth behind those leaves that seem to fall for eternity is that they have a lot to offer. Think about it this way: the massive tree that is dropping those leaves has been taking up nutrients and energy from the soil all year long. It takes up all that good stuff into its leaves and then drops them. They're like little bite-size bits of nutrients that the tree is dropping to replenish the soil.

Perhaps your routine is to whisk away those bits of nutrients (leaves) in piles of bags to place on the curb, and maybe after that you'll head to the garden center to get bags of bark mulch to insulate and protect your garden for winter. Well, if you're up for saving money and doing less work while enhancing your soil, try leaving the leaves this year.

1. In the Name of Soil

Every gardener knows that you can't have beautiful flowers and vegetables without good soil. If you have a garden, it's been working all year long to feed the plants you're growing. Now is the best time to give the soil a healthy boost without a bag of fertilizer or heavy mulch.

Simply mow over several patches of DRY leaves a few times. Take the bits of leaves and put a hefty layer in all of your garden beds. They will slowly break down and offer the soil a delicious meal while winter is bearing down. This is especially helpful in areas with erosion, or soil that hasn't been fed or cared for in a long time.

2. For the Lawn

Fall leaves on grass.

In the same way that gardens need great soil to grow, so does your lawn. After a hot summer and any dry spell, the lawn needs a boost before going into the cold season. Take your remaining dry leaves and mow over them a few more times. Let them get between the grass blades. They'll break down very quickly and offer your lawn those much needed micronutrients. They'll also help the lawn retain moisture so it can keep drinking water during winter.

3. For the Compost

There are several ways to use leaves for a compost pile. You can simply take several rake-fulls and put them over food scraps in the compost. To continually add organic matter during the cold season, you can keep a protected trash bin full of leaves next to the compost pile. You can also simply create a giant leaf pile in an area you're not concerned about and it will eventually turn to leaf mold. Leaf mold is a nutrient-dense feed that you can put on your garden next spring.

4. For the Creatures

A worm in the dirt surrounded by leaves.

Speaking of giant piles of leaves, it's important to think of the creatures who use your lawn and garden to survive. Everyone gets upset about deer, rabbits, and chipmunks who eat away at their beloved plants, but there's an even smaller group to consider. Many creatures like newts, butterfly larvae, earthworms, and more live among the leaf litter and actually require it for winter protection. Gardening is one of those compromises—it's for us, but it's also for them. Keep a small pile of leaf litter away from the garden and contribute to a little piece of wildlife protection.

5. For Insulation

Yes, leaves are an amazing boost of food for the garden, and they're also perfect insulators. A healthy layer of chopped leaves around the base of all your perennials keeps them protected from any surprise cold extremes that may threaten their coming back. Be generous with your leaf doses and put them underneath all of your plants.

6. For You

A trio of boys playing in a pile of leaves.

For any person who enjoys being outside and in the garden, arranging fall leaves under plants and on the lawn is typically the last landscaping activity of the year. It's a great way to get a bit of exercise, enjoy the cool air, and ward off any potential sadness that comes along with seeing less plants and having less time outdoors. It's a fun way to get the family together, so be sure to create the token giant leaf pile for everyone to jump in before heading inside. Take it in while it lasts!

7. For the Planet

When word comes out about the state of waste and landfills, no one ever thinks leaves could possibly contribute to that problem. But when everyone is doing the same thing and throwing away piles and piles of leaves, they add up.

"According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste—a whopping 33 million tons a year. Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane, says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide. In fact, solid waste landfills are the largest U.S. source of manmade methane—and that’s aside from the carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered blowers and trucks used in leaf disposal," wrote Laura Tangley from the National Wildlife Federation.

Keep yourself active without the broken back, enrich your soil, and help the world while you're at it. Leave those leaves this fall!