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Fall Leaves for Your Garden 

It’s now that time of year where days are getting shorter and cooler, and the garden is starting to wane, showing its signs of wanting to be put to rest. For many gardeners, this is an enjoyable time as they look back and see what they have grown or even how they will continue to have fresh produce for the next few months. As gardeners, we should always be aware of the next crop that is going in. For us, we plant garlic in the fall. For others, the next crop may be the first crop in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Either way, preparing the garden for winter correctly will save you time in the spring when it is time to plant.

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Wheel barrel with a rake leaning against it in a yard filled with fall leaves.

Fall Leaves for Your Garden

Leaves are free and abundant, and they are one of the greatest resources available during the fall. Whether saving them over the winter to make leaf compost or applying them directly over the soil, leaves are very nutrient-dense and beneficial for your garden. Tree roots go deep into the earth, and all of those nutrients circulate through the tree and into the leaves, which enhances them and makes them exceedingly beneficial to your soil. We take the leaves from our property and neighbors’ properties (with their permission) and mulch them. We then apply about 2 feet of this leaf mulch over the top of the garden bed. Sometimes, due to time restraints, we do not mulch the leaves and amend the soil by applying them whole.

For many gardeners, leaves aren’t the only thing they put over their beds before winter. Many will put their own homemade compost or purchase compost to top dress their beds. Topdressing is simply layering an inch or two of compost over the bed to help add nutrients to the existing soil over winter. If using this method, the leaf mulch can be applied after.

Wheel barrel filled with fall leaves for the garden.

Avoid adding black walnut, poison ivy, oak, and sumac leaves to the garden as they are not generally good for the soil. These can however be added to the compost but they may take longer to break down compared to other leaves. Many people will choose to mulch them before mixing them in with the other leaves. For example, we mostly have maple leaves available for our garden. Maple trees are susceptible to maple tar spot, a fungus. However, that disease will not have any adverse effect on your soil or garden, which means they are safe to use in your composting and mulching efforts.

When putting leaves over the garden bed, we normally pile the leaves 2 to 3 feet high. These leaves break down quickly over winter and will leave you with a mulched garden in the spring. Leaves are a great, easy, and free resource to enhance your soil and aid in putting your garden to bed for the winter. They also make a terrific fall garden mulch option.

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Wheel-barrel full of fall leaves with text, l"How to use fall leaves"


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    • Shredding the leaves helps them breakdown faster and if you are using them as a mulch it makes it easier for water to seep through to be taken up by the soil. You also want some airflow so you don’t have issues with too much-trapped moisture or mold. If you are leaving the leaves to breakdown over winter and you aren’t growing anything in that area then you can leave them whole.

    • Hi Hank, maple leaves make a great garden mulch because they enrich the soil with nitrogen and improve soil structure as they break down. However, because maple leaves tend to be rather large and lay flat, it is recommended to shred them before using them as garden mulch. When used whole, they can create a barrier and mat down, trapping water and decreasing airflow. Mulching with maple leaves likely didn’t cause the blight your tomato plants are experiencing. However, it may have contributed to the spread and development of this fungal disease. Blight on tomatoes is caused by a fungal infection spread by spores that require damp, warm weather conditions to flourish.

      Unfortunately, it is tough to treat blight. Some gardeners recommend applying an organic fungicide to the affected plants. However, since blight can spread very easily, it is generally recommended to remove and dispose of the plant to stop any further spread. To prevent blight in the future, water your plants in the evening or early morning, watering from the bottom, and avoiding the leaves. We also recommend spacing plants out, allowing for adequate airflow, and rotating your crops each season.

      The mold on your squash plants is likely powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that grows on the surface of a plant but never infiltrates the plant tissue itself. Powdery mildew tends to be the most severe in hot, dry climates with relatively high humidity. It’s common in crowded plantings with poor air circulation and in damp/shaded areas of the garden. To treat it, many gardeners recommend removing and destroying all infected plant parts. You can also apply an organic fungicide to treat powdery mildew, always following package directions. To prevent powdery mildew, choose plants or varieties of plants that are resistant to this disease. If you cannot find resistant varieties, avoid placing plants too close together and in low and shady conditions. When possible, avoid overhead watering and late summer applications of nitrogen fertilizer that can encourage tender new and susceptible growth. To read more about powdery mildew, check out this blog post:

      We hope this information helps answer your questions, have a great season!

    • Hi Ann, some gardeners avoid adding oak leaves to their soil. However, some people love using it to mulch their gardens. If you have an abundance of oak leaves, then we recommend giving it a try. Be sure that your oak leaves are completely dry and free of any green leaves. If you need to you can create a pile for your leaves and let them dry out. Mulch them up very well, and add a thin layer to the top of your garden beds. We hope this helps! You can learn more tips about mulching and some different types of mulch to try here,

  1. Hello, I don’t have a way to shred my leaves. If I am purchasing compost and not mulching the leaves how thick should the layer of leaves be and how thick should the compost be? Thank you.

    • Hi Karen, leaves really need to be broken down; when they aren’t they can create a barrier that traps water. Water that can pool and attract insects, cultivate mold, or limit the roots of your plants from getting water. If you don’t have a shredder, you can also break down your leaves by running over them with a lawnmower, using a lawn trimmer, or walking or driving over them to crumble them. You can also crush them by hand. You just don’t want whole leaves covering your soil.

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