Winter’s cycles of snow and thawing can erode the soil from your yard. Especially if there’s any slope, your carefully enriched topsoil may wash downhill, uprooting perennial plants.
Even where erosion isn’t a problem, perennial flowers and bushes are more likely to survive and thrive if they’re protected from the worst of winter’s icy cold. A layer of mulch spread over the soil insulates the soil surface, keeps roots warm, and helps to hold the soil in place.
At this time of year, a great source of mulch lies right under your feet!
Autumn leaves are often “in the way,” cluttering sidewalks and streets. They’re slippery and can conceal hazards like tree roots, curbs, and loose rocks, leading to injuries.
Clearing the fallen leaves out of public spaces is actually doing your community a favor, as well as giving you useful mulch for your yard!
Don’t collect leaves from someone else’s private property without asking permission. But if you offer to rake leaves from a lawn where they’re not wanted, you might even get paid to collect your mulch!
The best time to put leaves onto your garden is when it hasn’t rained for at least two days, but it’s going to rain soon. This means that the leaves are dry, so they’re lightweight and easy to scoop up. Then, when the rain falls, the leaves will be weighed down so that they stay in place.
Our little front yard has no lawn; it’s just flowers and a few edible plants arranged around a path. In September, about 80% of our front yard had to be dug up to replace both the public and private portions of our water-supply line with lead-free pipe. This brought a lot of clay up to the surface and pushed some of our topsoil under. Before planting new plants, we spread many bags of purchased topsoil on the yard. We didn’t want all that to wash away!
Our yard slopes slightly downhill from north to south. Our new neighbors to the north put a retaining wall around their yard, which we hope will stop rainwater and melting snow from uphill from running across our yard. We also put in a little border around the low side of our yard to help keep our dirt in place.
Then, when the autumn leaves fell, I blanketed our yard with them! I tucked them around the plants that have a leafy portion above ground through the winter, so that their leaves will continue to absorb sunlight.
I took only about two-thirds of the leaves you see in the first two photos to fill my front yard at least 6 inches deep. It’s surprising how many leaves can accumulate even in a small-looking space, like along the curb next to a parked car. You’ll want a utility tub, or just a large cardboard box, to fill with leaves to carry back to your yard.
A simple layer of dead leaves on your soil will not only keep your plants warm and your soil in place; it will actually add to the soil as some of the leaves decay. The moist, dark environment will encourage earthworms to come up on warm days, eat some leaves, and produce worm castings, the very best natural fertilizer! You can incorporate autumn leaves in a sheet mulch for even greater benefits.
I’m writing this post two weeks after I took the photos. My next step, now that more leaves have fallen, will be to collect leaves for our back yard. We have a steep cliff (seen and discussed in the later part of this article) that is prone to erosion and also gets quite battered by the wind whipping by. The leaves that fall off our own trees aren’t nearly enough to shield the soil because they all blow away!
Every year, we dump about a hundred pounds of autumn leaves down our cliff. Maybe 20% of them are still there in the spring, and we leave them there. Over the years, this has led to some build-up of crumbly, rich soil where plants actually like to grow–instead of the bare clay that was visibly shrinking closer to the house every year before we started collecting leaves!
If your leaves don’t mostly blow away before spring, you’ll want to remove them after the last frost. Carefully scoop up leaves with your fingers or a small tool, looking out for tender new plants coming up. Leave behind only a thin layer of lacy, brown leaves just on top of the soil. The leaves you remove can go into your compost bin or on any spot that needs mulch in the spring.
Stop thinking of autumn leaves as trash, and put them to work for you!
UPDATE in 2019: Gathering leaves for my yard again, I’m sad that this year we don’t have that scarlet maple tree two houses down. That tree was removed in September because its roots had heaved up the sidewalk so badly that several pedestrians had been injured, and the retaining wall in front of the house between ours and the tree also had been damaged. You can see in the photos a section of sidewalk rising like a cliff out of the pile of leaves; it was about 8 inches higher than the adjacent piece of sidewalk and thus very easy to trip over! You also can see loose concrete blocks that had fallen out of the retaining wall and were piled on top two years ago. The tree was just planted too shallowly in too small a space to coexist with the street and sidewalk. But we really miss that beautiful tree, whose shade our children played in and whose red leaves fed our garden.