Using Leaves in the Vegetable Garden

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Garlic mulched with leaves

When I was a kid, one of the things we did every autumn was to help rake up huge piles of leaves, and then run and jump in them. The younger children threw themselves into the piles, while the older ones turned leaf-pile jumping into a broad-jump type event. It was good, dirty fun that lasted until the leaves lost their loft and were hauled off to the compost pile.

We didn't know it at the time, but all our jumping helped prepare the leaves for composting. When whole leaves are broken into smaller pieces, they leach out their tannins more readily than whole leaves, which transforms them into a suitable lunch for varying strains of fungi. These days I use a mower to coarsely shred my leaves, which I then use as winter mulch in the vegetable garden.

Indeed, the mixture of chopped leaves and end-of-the-season grass clippings I can collect with my mower's bagging attachment is the best mulch I have found for covering newly planted beds of garlic.

Composting Leaves

In the more wooded parts of my yard it is more practical to rake whole leaves into a bin for later use in compost or as mulch, and sometimes friends offer me plump bags of whole leaves. Setting up a temporary holding bin for composting leaves using stakes and plastic fencing takes about ten minutes, and some kind of enclosure is required to keep the leaves from blowing about.

Leaf pile

At first I make no attempt to moisten my gathered leaves, because dry leaves break into pieces more readily than wet ones. Thin leaves like those from dogwoods or poplars crumble like potato chips when they are dry, and thicker oak leaves crack into pieces. I stomp through the piles each time I add more leaves to crush them up a bit, and then wait for winter rains to gradually wet down the leaves.

I am often asked about speeding up the leaf composting process by adding either fertilizer, as a nitrogen source, or a microbial compost starter. Neither are good ideas. Research on the biology of leaf decomposition has shown that the specific strains of fungi needed to start the rotting process are on the leaves before they fall from the trees. These fungi need only moisture and time to do their work, and might be set back by the introduction of alien microorganisms or chemical changes in their environment. Once you hoard a quantity of leaves and have them contained, you can let them sit there until you find a good use for them.

Raking fallen leaves for leafmould

Leaf Mulch for Vegetables

By spring my collected leaves have begun to soften, but they are still in clumps that smell like rotting leaves. I often snake a soaker hose around the pile to provide moisture, but then proceed to use the half-rotted leaves as vegetable garden mulch as the need arises. Leaf mulch keeps the soil cool while blocking light to weeds, and several vegetables including bulb onions, pumpkins and potatoes have shown higher yields when their root zones are covered with a thick blanket of leaf mulch. Young fruit trees respond well to leaf mulch, too, by showing faster growth and better use of soil nutrients.

If I were more patient I might make a batch of true leaf mould, which takes two years in my climate. An ideal substitute for peat moss, leaf mould does a great job of retaining moisture and suppressing diseases in potting soil mixes, and it dramatically lightens up soil when dug into a garden bed. I used to have lots of it, thanks to neighbors who dumped their leaves in the woods every fall and forgot about them -- after letting the neighborhood kids jump in the piles first.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"i use leaves in all my beds in the fall flower n veggies to rot out, in the spring the plants have such life. As for the veggies patches i tile in the left over leaves as a compost."
monjardin on Tuesday 29 October 2013
"I have purchased a leaf 'vacuum ' which is great at picking up the fallen leaves as well as chopping up the leaves as it picks them up. My concern is that it also picks up any seeds, nuts and of course fox poo that is hidden below the leaves. "
Brian on Friday 1 November 2013
"I used leaves as a soil builder and mulch this year with great success. Where I used the mulch there was no weeds, including Burmuda grass. Even had enough left over to make about 5 yards of grass clipping compost from chicken litter leaves. The only problem is we cut about 50 trees so this year so will have few trees. I giess I will have to beg for leaves destined for burn pile this year!"
Tom on Friday 1 November 2013
"to know can also get your neighbors leaves as they put them in bags to be picked up by recycle, actually they will be more pleased to see someone use them... to Brian..I have a blower/vacuum too but i usually blow all the leaves in one pile and then vacuum it up so only the leaves are shredded I do have a question tho...are Elephant Ears leaves safe to put in your compost?"
monjardin on Friday 8 November 2013
"Leaves of trees and plants are helpful to make compost fertilizer for farming. It is really a good concept to use leaves in vegetable garden."
Andrew on Wednesday 20 November 2013
"I was wondering if the Poplar leaves would make the soil too acidic? "
Kelly on Saturday 21 February 2015
"I have leaves that have been in a pile all winter long and are not decomposed. Would it be ok to spread the leaves over what will be my potato bed, and till them under? I will plant my potato seeds in a couple of weeks. "
Julie on Monday 13 April 2015
"I have an allotment in SW London and in past years have grown potatoes in the conventional way. Lot of digging, then planting, then earthing up. Last winter the local council deposited about 70 sacks of leaves in our car park so am going to try planting potatoes about 2 inches down, cover them in the leaves to about 8 inches deep and top up as the season progresses. I am going to use pea/bean net pegged down on either side of the leaves to keep them from blowing away. Will report back in a few weeks!"
John Lawson on Saturday 25 April 2015
"I Use bamboo leaves in my garden, is that ok??"
Kim on Sunday 3 May 2015
"Kim If its just the leaves can't see that there will be a problem. If stripping the leaves off bamboo canes be extremely careful of the canes. Wear safety goggles. A plot holder on a nearby allotment in the same London Borough lost his eye recently when a cane went the wrong way. It only takes a moments distraction and "wham" "
John on Saturday 9 May 2015
"Hi, Can I til mulched leaves into my garden? "
GailBendt on Thursday 28 May 2015
"Further to my entry on 25th April I have NOT proceeded with using leaves as a covering for growing potatoes. Reason? The leaves our local council left were collected from the gutters of roadways and probably contain all kinds of nasties, the worst being the products of car exhaust! I am for this year growing the potatoes under strong ground cover fabric and as Steve McQueen said in a scene from the Magnificent Seven, 'So far,so good'. I shall investigate collecting leaves from woodland for next year. Regards"
John Lawson on Saturday 30 May 2015
"I have a huge bamboo in my garden which I love but all of a sudden the leaves have been stripped now all I've got is canes. Whats happenedo it."
Brenda on Thursday 4 June 2015
"I have just started composting. I have several Elephant Ear plants and since their leaves are poisonous, I was wondering if it is safe to compost them. Thank you. "
Sheree Moutria on Tuesday 20 October 2015
"I also have some clumping bamboo (Alphone Karr) that has lost its leaves. Is this normal after a few years, or should I be concerned about disease, etc.? That is, will new leaves be regenerated, or am I looking at removal? Thanks!"
Roger on Thursday 21 April 2016
"I was informed from a gardener from Mona River Ndwedwe that he put leaves on all his vegetable plants and no he is enjoining the benefits. I just threw some on all my chilies as I cannot plant others due to monkey problems in our area . Is there any things that I can plant which they wont attack."
Allimuthu Perumal on Friday 27 May 2016
"I note that some of my chilli fruits are looking good as per my farmer friend , he saw the leaves I threw around them."
Allimuthu Perumal on Friday 17 June 2016
"Can leaves slow down the plant growing process in the first year? I use to have a nice garden every year but last fall I put leaves directly in the garden mixed them with the earth and now all my plants are turning yellow and not growing... I don't know what to do ... Can somebody give me an opinion, any suggestion? "
Constantin on Sunday 19 June 2016
bobby on Monday 5 December 2016
"Pile leaves on top of the garden - don't mix in. When you dig in the leaves, it ties up the nitrogen in the soil and will cause the yellowing of plants that was mentioned. When left on the surface, it provides a perfect habitat underneath for the earthworms and other decomposers to do their work, releasing the leaves nutrients slowly and creating luscious soil."
Deanna on Sunday 10 June 2018
"Are pine needles a good mulch for garlic?"
Dante on Saturday 19 October 2019
"Help. I chopped the leaves in the fall and covered my raised vegetable garden with them but I didn’t mix them in. Now that it’s spring,do I mix them into the soil before planting or do i leave them on top and plant veggies thru them? Thanks for answering"
Suzi on Friday 23 April 2021
"Can I safely compost leaves into my vegetable garden if the previous winter I used a systemic aphid control?"
Bob on Monday 18 October 2021
"Can I dump my shredded leaves on top of my very small garden and then cover and tack down landscape material over it and leave it there through the winter. Thanks"
BEVERLY EVANS on Monday 15 November 2021
"is it safe to use poplar leaves in the garden"
jack on Tuesday 25 October 2022
"Make sure you know what kind of trees your leaves are coming from. Never mulch leaves from pecan or walnut trees. They contain a toxin that is poisonous to most vegetation"
Deb on Sunday 25 June 2023

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