Leaf Debris

Leaf Debris leaves with rake

What should you do with all the leaf debris from your trees and shrubs?  That time of year is rapidly approaching when the trees will begin dropping leaves and we will find ourselves with piles drifted into corners and layers covering the lawn.  From an organic systems view, these fallen leaves are like gold.  Here are a few tips for managing the leaf debris this fall.

Let’s talk first about what leaves are.  The dead and drying leaves that you see on your landscape were once the living part of the tree or shrub where the photosynthesis took place.  When the tree or shrub begins to enter its dormant period during the winter months, it shuts down these nutrient factories and lets them fall away.  Each of those leaves is loaded with nutrients that were taken up by the tree or shrub, making them a goldmine of valuable material that should be returned to your landscape.

Most trees have deep root structures that pull nutrients from deep within the soil.  The interaction of the tree roots with a healthy fungi network means that the tree is also receiving nutrients from vast distances.  These nutrients are concentrated in the leaves.  Sending those leaves away robs your soil of the benefit of those nutrients.

Some Don’ts

leaf debris man with blower

Don’t rake your leaves into plastic bags and send them to the landfill.  You might as well buy a couple of bags of fertilizer and toss it into the dumpster.  That is, in effect, what you are doing.  That pile of leaves represents organic matter and captured nutrients all in the proper ratios that plants can use.  Those nutrients came from the soil and it is shameful to waste them by tossing those bags of leaves into the trash.

Don’t rake your leaves into piles and burn them.  If you live in the city limits, it is probably against the law.  Even if it’s not, this is a bad idea.  Burning turns most of the organic matter into carbon or carbon compounds.  Plants, for the most part, don’t get carbon from the soil.  The carbon that plants use comes from the carbon dioxide component of the air.  Concentrating all that organic material into carbon doesn’t help the soil or your plants.

Don’t put the leaves in your compost pile. Adding large amounts of leaves can overload your compost pile with brown material, upsetting the balance and causing your compost pile to misbehave.  The overabundance of brown material in your compost pile can cause it to go anaerobic, which is bad.  The presence of anaerobic bacteria can lead to bad smells and cause the compost pile to quit composting. 

Best Leaf Practices

leaf debris mulching with lawn mower
Fall Shoot 2009, Lifestyle Images

The best option for managing the leaves that fall from your trees is to mulch them into your turf.  Use your mulching lawnmower to turn them into fine pieces and leave them where they fall.  Mulching the leaves does not cause thatch and will not harm your turf unless you continue to add more ground-up leaf debris until your turf is completely covered which can smother the turf.


If you have too much left after mulching into your turf, move the unused leaves to your driveway or an out of the way area, continue to grind it with your mulching lawnmower and use the leaf debris to mulch your flowerbeds and garden beds.  Add some dry molasses to the beds as well to speed up the decomposition process.

If you still have leaves left over, as a last resort, you can compost them.  Add the ground up leaf debris to your compost pile.  You should add dry molasses to the compost pile at the same time to aid in the decomposition process. 

Don’t Throw Away Money

Leaf Debris leaf mulch in landscape

Never send the fallen leaves off your site.  They should be mulched or composted.  You are not doing anything but sending valuable nutrients and organic matter away.  Some researchers estimate that the fallen leaves of one tree can be worth as much as $50 in plant nutrients and organic matter.  Throwing away your leaves is like throwing money in the trash.

This fall take a look at those leaves with a  new understanding.  Don’t see a nasty job that has to be done repeatedly.  Appreciate what the trees have provided, make use of the nutrient-rich leaf litter and make your soil and plants healthier and happier.

Links and Resources

For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest

Thatch and Scalping

Wood Chip Mulch


If you have more specific questions or problems, you can contact us using the contact form on our website. You can also post your question to our community forum at this page; West Texas Organic Gardening Community Forum.

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