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Gardening & More: Don't waste those valuable fall leaves

MAKE LIKE A TREE AND LEAF — Whether you’re an avid gardener or just want a nice lawn, those autumn leaves will help you out. Chop them up with your lawn mower and use them on your lawn, as mulch for garden beds or as material for your compost pile. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.
HAMBURG — Some people work hard to get leaves out of their yards, but you should be working to keep those leaves in your yard! They are a valuable commodity for your lawn and gardens. In fact, if your neighbors don’t want their leaves, see if they will rake those leaves your way.

You can use the leaves on your lawn, as mulch for garden beds, or as material for your compost pile.

Probably the simplest thing you can do is just run over the leaves with your lawn mower and allow the chopped up bits to remain on your lawn. This will add valuable nutrients to the soil. It’s similar to the summer, when you mow your lawn and let the grass clippings stay where they fall; you will have a healthier lawn.

If you have a lot of leaves, or if your neighbors are willing to share their leaves with you, can spread that bounty to your gardens. Leaves, especially chopped up leaves, make great mulch for garden beds.

Mulch acts as an insulator and can protect plant roots from bitterly cold winter temperatures. Mulch can also help protect roots from wild swings in temperatures and unseasonably warm periods in winter, which we experienced the last two years. Mulching was especially important, during that warm spell in January, because we didn’t have much snow cover, which acts as an insulator. Whether we get a cold winter, a winter with unseasonably warm temperatures, a dry winter or some wild combination of conditions, mulch should help.

You can also add the leaves to your compost pile. But, if you add whole leaves to your pile now, you will still have whole leaves in the spring. They will decompose much faster if they are chopped up.

What is the best way to chop up leaves for mulch? If you have a lawn mower that bags up your clippings, you are all set.

If not, here are a few tips. Wait until the leaves are dry; they crumble up much better.

Rake the leaves onto a concrete or asphalt driveway. Do not pile the leaves up very high. Starting with a big pile might seem like a shortcut, but it actually works better if you mow a small pile.

Run over the leaves with the lawn mower, aiming the lawn mower so that the pieces spray onto the driveway. This makes it easier to sweep up the bits and transport them wherever you want to use them.

If your driveway is narrow, you will not be able to create a long row of leaves and zip down the row with your lawn mower, because you will be spraying the chopped up leaves past the edge of the driveway and onto the lawn. Once the tiny leaf crumbs get on the lawn, they quickly settle in and are difficult to gather up. It is better if you go back and forth, across the row.

If you do not have a paved area in your yard, mow the leaves on the lawn and spray the chopped bits onto a tarp.

I found that this does not work as well in practice as it does in theory. When I tried it, the movement of the mower blades created a draft that flipped up the edge of the tarp. The leaves sprayed under the tarp, instead of on top of it. Raking some leaves onto the edge of the tarp to weigh it down helped a little. I was using a very flimsy clear plastic tarp; you might prefer to use a heavier tarp.

Whichever method you use, keep those leaves in your yard; they are a valuable asset for your lawn and garden.

Connie Oswald Stofko is the publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email

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