Fall leaves

Fall leaves make a fantastic mulch to protect flowerbeds during the winter. 

STILLWATER, Okla. – With a bit of a chill in the air, Oklahomans are noticing a change of colors in the landscape – vibrant oranges, yellows and reds that fill the tree canopy. People often drive for miles to catch a glimpse of fall being ushered in.

However, once those leaves fall from their trees in a residential yard, what is a homeowner to do? Fortunately, there are many environmentally friendly ideas for using this gift from Mother Nature, said David Hillock, Oklahoma State University Extension consumer horticulturist.

“Some homeowners simply rake the leaves into piles, bag them up and put the bags on the curb for disposal. This method not only takes up space in the landfill, but it also wastes a valuable resource for the landscape,” Hillock said. “Instead, rake them into your flowerbeds to use as winter mulch. Just use your judgement on how many leaves to rake. A large amount of big leaves, such as sycamore, could potentially suffocate any plants that are overwintering.”

Another quick and easy method of getting rid of the leaves is to mow them with a mulching mower. Hillock said the chopped leaves return valuable organic matter and nutrients to the soil during the mowing process.

“Another option is to mow the leaves using the bag attachment on the mower. Homeowners can then use the chopped leaves across their land,” he said. “If there are too many leaves to mow, consider using a vacuum shredder instead. This is an effective way to eliminate the leaves and it still leaves you with the chopped leaves that can be used elsewhere around the home. The chopped leaves can be useful in insulating tender plants over the winter.”

Homeowners who have a compost pile can add the leaves into other garden material. No special container is needed. Simply dig a big hole somewhere out of the way and fill it with plant material. Hillock said leaves are the perfect carbon ingredient for a compost pile. Layer the dead leaves between green garden debris that gets cleaned out of planting beds this season.

Dead leaves are a great, free amendment for garden soil. The process works best using shredded leaves, but whole leaves can be used, too. Hillock said turn the leaves into the top few inches of soil or simply layer leaves on top of the soil and chop them with a garden fork or spade, then let nature take its course.

Hillock said it is important not to use leaves that have been infected with disease. Diseases can overwinter on debris and reinfect plants the following year. In order to reduce the chance of diseases from reoccurring, remove them from the garden.

“The colors of the variety of leaves adds beauty to the fall season, but once the leaves hit the ground, homeowners should get to work and utilize the leaves for other gardening activities,” Hillock said.

Trisha Gedon is a communications specialist for Oklahoma State University’s Agricultural Communications Services.