Ways to Use Fall Leaves

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 11-3-14

By Liz Coakley

The days are growing shorter. Our winter hats are close at hand, we can see our breath when we leave the house every morning, and the beautiful autumn leaves are beginning to pile up on our lawns. While the City of Ithaca offers bagged leaf pick-up for a fee, Cornell Cooperative Extension has other ideas. Why not use those fallen leaves as mulch and compost for gardens in the Ithaca area?

Leaves break down quickly and provide valuable organic matter for future garden beds. After the neighborhood kids have jumped in the piles, let’s improve the health of our yards by spreading shredded leaves on the lawn, using them to mulch around trees, and making leaf mould (compost) for the garden. Or, we can use those leaves to aid in breaking down household food scraps in our compost piles.

Mowing over leaves is one easy option for processing. Shredded leaves will break down more quickly than whole leaves. They can be used as mulch around shrubs and trees, or simply left on the lawn to decompose under the grass canopy. When mulching around trees, make sure not to let the mulch touch the trunks, and to only pile a few inches thick. Raked leaves can also be piled on existing garden beds, as thick as two feet deep! This thick layer of leaves will quickly compact, and will provide insulation for the beds. If dry leaves are blowing off the garden and around the yard, a thin layer of heavier mulch can be added on top of the leaves.

If you aren’t a gardener yet, but you’d like to be, leaves can be used to create new garden beds. Rather than the difficult labor of turning over soil next spring, you can start now using a technique called “sheet mulching.” Cover the ground with thick layers of cardboard and newspaper. This will smother existing plants and weeds. On top of the cardboard, add a thin layer of “greens” (food scraps, chopped up Halloween pumpkins, fresh grass clippings, etc.) covered by a thick layer of leaves. Keep adding alternating layers of these materials. The layers will break down over the winter and create rich beds for spring planting.

Leaves can also be stockpiled to create a special type of compost called “leaf mould.” Make a large pile of leaves, contained by pallets or wire fencing, or simply piled in an out-of-the-way location. When these leaves break down, they will become a valuable compost to add to garden beds. A 6 foot tall pile of leaves will break down dramatically over the winter.

Finally, an abundant supply of dry leaves is extremely useful for backyard composting. Balancing the greens (food scraps, grass clippings, etc.) with “browns” (materials high in carbon, such as sticks, dried leaves, straw, shredded paper, etc.) will ensure you have the carbon, air spaces and drainage needed for a healthy pile. It’s a good idea to bag leaves when dry and keep them out of the elements. Take out the bags and add to the compost pile throughout the year. Each large bag will provide enough leaves for a month or two of composting. If you don’t compost, maybe you have a friend or neighbor who does!

If none of these ideas work in your life, you can still dispose of your leaves at no cost, and allow others to use your leaf material to improve the health of their yards and gardens. Cornell Cooperative Extension is hosting a Fall Leaf Swap. Bring your leaves to CCE! From November 11th to the 22nd, CCE will be accepting clean, bagged leaves at our site, 615 Willow Avenue in Ithaca. (Please do not bring branches, sticks, or other yard waste.)

A great day to bring your leaves to CCE is on Sunday, November 16 for America Recycles Day. Between 10am and 2pm (the normal hours of the food scrap “drop spot” at CCE) the Tompkins County Solid Waste Division will sponsor a celebration of recycling in our community. TCSW will be collecting textiles (including used wearable clothing) and up to 10 gallons of food scraps for recycling. Samples of finished compost from Cayuga Compost will be given away, and educators on hand to talk more about food waste prevention, home composting and the many forms of recycling.

The Leaf Swap event will be held on Saturday, November 22 at CCE from 10am to 1pm. Gardeners and composters are welcome to come pick up bags of free leaves, learn about compost techniques, and take up to 5 gallons of free compost (bring your own container)! For more information, click on “classes and workshops” at ccetompkins.org/compost or contact Mila at <ymf5@cornell.edu> or 607-272-2292. Happy leaf composting!

Liz Coakley is a Master Composter with the Compost Education Program of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles