Leaves In, Compost Out: How to Make Autumn Leaves Work For You

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Maple, birch and pine trees surround our house and garden, and in the fall, drop a beautiful layer of crisp leaves and soft needles on the ground. They crunch when you walk, and the kids love raking loose piles and jumping in them. After the first heavy rain, they’re reduced to a thick, soggy mat. Somewhat less beautiful.

We don’t have roadside trash pickup here, but I don’t mind. I’ve found a better solution for those leaves: good insulating mulch. And then, eventually, compost.

What’s the difference between mulch and compost?

Compost and mulch are both are indispensable to a seasoned gardener.

Mulch is any bulky material used as a protective barrier on top of the soil. Leaves, straw, chopped bark, even sheets of black plastic are commonly used as mulch. Gardeners (and landscapers) use mulch to keep moisture in the soil, to insulate from cold, to suppress weeds and to create an attractive surface layer.

Compost is superfood for the garden. Consisting of broken down organic matter, it’s a fantastic source of nourishment for growing plants. Compost can be worked into the soil, or just left on top and used as a mulch layer on its own. Kitchen scraps, cow or chicken manure, garden waste, and of course fallen leaves are all ingredients in my compost.

Four easy steps  to make use of your tree litter

Step 1, autumn: Rake your leaves and use them to mulch empty garden beds: spread the leaves on the soil when the garden is ready to rest for the winter. A thick insulating layer keeps weeds from growing between warm and cold seasons.

Step 2, spring: Clear the garden of that leaf mulch to remove the insulating layer and help the soil warm more quickly. Rake the leaves from the top of the soil and dump in an empty compost bin, if you have one; and if you don’t, a big pile will do nicely.

(Between steps 2 and 3, at planting time: Enrich the soil with last year’s compost, if you have it; spread compost over the top of the soil and fork it in. If you don’t have any, skip this step for now; next year, you’ll have leaf compost! This works for flowers, vegetables, what have you. I do some of each.)

Step 3, midsummer: Mulch growing garden beds. Take last fall’s leaf mulch from your pile or bin and generously fill in between the larger plants in the garden. I use this mostly between potatoes, but also garlic, leeks, tomatoes, eggplants…any big plants, really. This helps to keep weeds down and moisture in.

Step 4, harvest time: Compost. When it’s time to start harvesting and removing plants from the garden, start a new compost pile or bin. Layer the year-old leaf mulch in with plants pulled from the garden. This will create a new batch of compost for next year!

I’ve used this simple method very informally for years. There’s satisfaction in getting those leaves covering your lawn to work for you!


  1. I’m new to gardening, and all stuff green, and learning as I go. Last year, I did rake the leaves on the garden BUT when spring came I didn’t know to rake them out and let the soil breathe. I found this timeline very helpful as a newbie.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I’m glad you found this helpful! Yes, better to rake the leaves in spring, but your garden just got an extra dose of organic matter as a bonus! Thanks for reading, and good luck with your garden.

  2. What a great article and very informative. I am sure I am not alone in thinking I would like to do this but not sure how to begin. This really spells the year out for people. Thanks for all the tips!!

    1. Hi Brenda, glad you found this helpful. Fall leaves are definitely beneficial to gardeners! What kind of garden are you planning? Thanks for reading.

  3. Thank you!! We are in the process of researching to start our very first garden this weekend. I knew we could use the leaves for something.

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