Using Shredded Leaves

Make the Most of One of Nature's Free Soil Builders

Shredded leaves being spread under plants

If you have an abundant source of leaves in the fall, shred them. Your garden will benefit in a big way. Here how to use them:

  • Insulate Tender Plants: A 6-inch blanket of leaves protects tender plants from winter wind and cold. Cover cold-hardy vegetables—such as carrots, kale, leeks and beets—and you'll be able to harvest them all winter.
  • Boost Your Compost Pile: Carbon-rich leaves balance high-nitrogen compost ingredients such as fresh grass clippings.
  • Improve Your Soil: Mix shredded leaves right into your garden. Next spring, your soil will be teeming with earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
  • Make "Leaf Mold": Simply rake the leaves into a big pile. If you shred them, they will decompose faster, but you can still make leaf mold without shredding. After one to three years, fungus will have broken the leaves down to a special compost that smells like a walk through the woods. Leaf mold is high in calcium and magnesium and retains three to five times its weight in water—rivaling peat moss.

Think Before You Shred

  • Be careful with some kinds of leaves. Walnut, eucalyptus and camphor laurel leaves contain substances that inhibit plant growth. It's best to compost these leaves before using them in your garden
  • Be sure to chop or shred leaves before using them as mulch. Whole leaves can form a mat that water can't penetrate.
  • If you add shredded leaves right to the soil, add some slow-release nitrogen fertilizers to help the leaves decompose and to ensure that soil microbes don't use all of the available nitrogen.

Reader's Lawnmower Technique

From Garry & Pam in Columbia, Md.:

Regarding the September articles on shredding leaves for mulch, my wife and I have worked up what we believe is a better, more productive, and faster method for shredding leaves than just mowing them where they fall on the lawn and then raking them up.

We live in an urban area here in Maryland and have plenty of trees in our neighborhood that are good fodder for mulch. Several years ago we began to "windrow" our leaves into the street in front of our house including those that we would rake off of our lawn. We would also take our neighbors' bags of leaves and empty them into the windrow (they are somewhat astonished that I would even WANT them!). Firing up an old mulching lawn mower—with the blade at the lowest level—I would go up and down the windrows and literally grind them up, resulting in a very nice mass of small shredded leaf particles. Taking a flat-bladed snow shovel, I would scoop them up and into a large-wheeled garbage can and begin distributing the leaves around our garden.

Admittedly this method will not work for everyone (especially if where you live there is no concrete or asphalt street available), but we have found that shredding leaves this way is fun and economical and the result is wonderful—good exercise and great stuff for the garden!

Last updated: 06/15/2023