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Master Gardeners: Bypass bagging, put fallen leaves to work for your yard

Master Gardeners: Bypass bagging, put fallen leaves to work for your yard

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A better way than raking and bagging leaves as trash? Mowing and mulching.

Each year, I have less and less enthusiasm for raking and bagging my leaves. I love my trees, but dealing with the leaves is brutal. Any suggestions? KT

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with our trees. We love them, but when the leaves begin to come down in the fall, that relationship sours a bit.

What if there were a way you could utilize those leaves in your yard and garden that not only help improve your soil but also was something you are already doing? Well, there is and it’s a simple and ecofriendly way to utilize those leaves each year.

Before I was enlightened in this area, I used to rake, bag and spend the winter hauling bags to the curb so they could be picked up with the trash. At our home, we have more than 60 trees, and after bagging all those leaves the first year in the house, we had about 120 bags. That’s a lot of time and effort. Even while I am typing this, I hear my neighbor’s blower, working the leaves into a pile so they can bag them up. To each his own, but I was happy to move past that once I learned a better way.

What is that better way, you might ask? Mowing and mulching.

One of the best ways you can deal with standard leaves, such as from oaks, etc., is to mow them with a mulching mower. Now, for this strategy to be pain-free, you need to stay on top of the situation so that the leaves don’t get ahead of you. But even if they do, all is not lost. This strategy will still work, but it may take a couple of passes with the lawnmower to make them disappear.

I don’t know how many times I have looked out at our yard and thought, “Well, I waited too long this year,” only to have a thick blanket of leaves disappear as I mowed over them. I usually have to mow three to four times during the season to take care of the leaves. But if you added up all the time spent blowing and bagging and hauling, it is a small investment of time comparatively.

Another thing I do is collect the leaves that fall on the driveway, sidewalk, back patio and up next to the curb and run them through a leaf mulcher. The leaf mulcher is a special device that will probably cost around a hundred dollars or so, but it will pay for itself in a season or two. If you don’t have or don’t want to invest in one of these devices, you can always pile the leaves up in the driveway and use your mower to mulch them.

Once they are mulched, you can put them in trash bags and store in the corner of the yard until spring. When spring comes, rather than head off to the store to purchase bags of mulch for your garden, your mulch will be waiting for you in your backyard. And it makes great garden mulch.

What makes it so great? First of all, it’s essentially free. Secondly, as a natural organic product, after the garden season is over, you can till it into the soil to increase organic content and add nutrients to your soil. Organic matter in soil in our area is typically around 1%. So anything we can do to boost soil organic matter levels is a good thing.

Something else you might not know is that leaves contain about 1% nitrogen, which is the same nitrogen level as cow manure. So by mowing your leaves into your yard rather than hauling them off, you are adding nitrogen back into the soil in a very “local” way.

Several types of plants, such as elephant ears, peonies or even strawberries, could benefit from a good layer of fall mulch. But don’t cover any tender perennials with mulch until after it has gotten cold. The goal is to keep the plants dormant throughout the winter, so you need to wait until dormancy has set in before covering.

Leaves can also provide a winter home for beneficial insects. Typically, I just let the leaves that come to rest in my garden stay right where they fall. They provide some winter protection for the over-wintering plants, but they also provide a habitat for over-wintering beneficial insects.

Most of us are familiar with the migration of Monarch butterflies, but migration is the exception to the rule, as most butterflies and moths over-winter in leaf litter. Bumblebees also depend on fallen leaves for protection. When summer ends, the queen bumblebees burrow about an inch or two into the soil to hibernate during winter. This extra layer of leaves provides insulation to keep them safe.

So if you are looking to reduce your fall labor load, one of the best ways to do that is to become a caretaker of the natural resources in your yard rather than bagging and hauling off this valuable natural resource.


Gallery: Fall foliage at Beavers Bend State Park

You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th Street, or by emailing us at


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