Autumn leaves are beautiful to look at on the trees. But when they start to fall, many gardeners find them less of a delight. But rather than seeing autumn leaves as a nuisance to be raked up and tidied away, we should see them instead as a very useful resource for our home gardening. And as something we can collect and enjoy within our homes. To help you see the utility of autumn leaves, here’s how to make full use of autumn leaves in your garden and home:
You can use them:
In your composting system.
To make new garden beds.
As a mulch in existing beds.
To make leaf mould.
In autumn craft projects.
For autumnal decoration inside your home.
To enjoy in your home over the winter months.
Read on to look at each of these ideas in a little more depth. Of course, you can simply allow autumn leaves to lie where they fall, to gradually rot down and replenish the soil. But where they are not wanted, for example on lawns, paths, patios or decking, here are some ideas to help you understand what to do with them:
Add Autumn Leaves To Your Composting System
First of all, you can of course simply collect up autumn leaves and add them to your composting system. A large heap or bin in your garden can benefit from the addition of this carbon rich material.
Adding autumn leaves can be good for balancing a composting system to which lots of nitrogen rich material has been added. No matter exactly which composting system you have chosen, you need to make sure you have a good balance of carbon rich (brown) and nitrogen rich (green) materials.
If you have a smaller composting system for kitchen scraps, you might not be able to add all your autumn leaves at once. But you could set them aside to add in smaller quantities on top of food scraps over time. This can help to stop the mix from becoming anaerobic. And can prevent you from having any issues, such as bad smells.
Use Them to Make New Growing Areas
Autumn leaves are also a useful resource for making new growing areas. Composting does not need to take place in a dedicated heap or composting container or bin. It can also occur in place, in your garden.
In a no dig garden, creating new beds involves no digging or tilling at all. Instead, layers of brown and green organic matter are laid over cardboard (built up in much the same way that they are in a more traditional composting set up).
Autumn leaves make a very useful brown material for the inclusion in one of these types of beds. (These beds are sometimes called ‘lasagna beds’ because of the way in which the layers are built up like the layers in a lasagna.)
A related idea is the idea of hugelkultur, which involves making mounds of layered organic matter around a core ‘skeleton’ of rotting wood. Autumn leaves are an abundant source of carbon rich organic matter that can be used in the creation of this type of growing area too.
Use Autumn Leaves As Mulch
If you don’t need or want to make new beds, autumn leaves can also be a very useful type of organic matter in existing parts of your garden. Just as they can protect and enrich the soil under the trees where they naturally fall, so too they can protect the soil in other parts of your garden.
Autumn leaves can be a useful mulch not only in a woodland or forest garden, but also, potentially, in annual vegetable beds and other areas. Autumn leaves are a useful mulch material because they:
Protect the soil from run-off, nutrient loss and erosion over the winter months.
Break down gradually, enriching and improving soil texture. Which means that the humus-rich soil will be great for moisture and nutrient retention next year.
Provide habitat for micro-organisms, soil-surface dwelling insects, and other wildlife. Leaving mulches, and piles of autumn leaves around will be beneficial for a range of garden creatures – including hedgehogs, for example.
Keep the soil and plant roots protected against winter frosts and freezing. (For this reason, they can be useful to place around overwintering crops like garlic and onions, for example.)
Depending on which leaves you use, they can also look more colourful and attractive than other organic mulch materials that you might use.
Make Leaf Mould To Enrich Your Garden Soil
Though there are plenty of ways to use leaves right away, there is one that requires patience. You can use autumn leaves to make a separate composting area where leaves will break down to make leaf mould. Leaf mould takes a while to make. But it can be a very useful soil amendment for your garden.
You can find my previous article on making leaf mould here.
Enjoy Autumn Craft Projects
Autumn leaves can also be used for fun creative projects. Using autumn leaves in craft projects can be a fun way to spend time with kids, or simply to give your own creativity free reign.
You could use fresh autumn leaves in a range of craft projects. For example, you can:
String them up and use them as outdoors bunting or decoration.
Arrange them alongside other natural materials in your garden to make garden artworks.
Paint them and press them for designs on paper or cards.
Use moist autumn leaves to make hammered leaf art. (The hammering extracts the natural colour from the leaves).
Press leaves into clay or plaster to leave their depressions behind.
Use fresh autumn leaves in a fairy garden, or as part of a fairy house outside.
If you want your crafting to serve a more practical purpose, you could also use autumn leaves in the creation of a DIY hedgehog hotel, bug box etc… Making things to attract wildlife to your garden can also be a creative and fun activity to enjoy with kids.
Use Autumn Leaves To Decorate Your Home
You can also press and dry leaves to use in craft projects or to serve as autumnal decoration within your home.
Another thing to consider is that you can create a wide range of beautiful displays in your house so you can enjoy the vibrant colours of the season inside as well as out.
You can simply create an autumn bowl or autumn table with a selection of leaves, pine cones and other natural objects collected from your garden.
Another idea is to fill a clear vase or other receptacle with leaves. You could also place one smaller glass or jar inside a larger one. Place autumn leaves around the edges, then put a candle or small LED light in the middle, so the light shines through and brings their colours to life.
You could also string dried, pressed leaves on a wire, make them into a garland, or a mobile to hang on your wall.
Or put some pressed leaves into a glass fronted picture frame, and hang the display as a piece of art…
Preserve Autumn Leaves To Enjoy All Winter Long
Pressing and drying leaves can help to preserve them. But if you truly want them to remain fresh and vibrant all winter long, it can also be a good idea to coat them to preserve them. One eco-friendly way to coat them is using beeswax.
Simple melt some natural beeswax (or another organic wax), then dip and shake each leave to leave a thin wax coating on each one.
The waxed leaves will last long enough for you to consider a wide range of other ways to brighten up your home over the Christmas season and beyond. One simple example is to string bright, wax coated red/ orange/yellow leaves along twine or wire and use them as decorations for your Christmas tree.
These are just some examples of the many imaginative ways that you can make full use of autumn leaves. They are useful and beautiful, and we should all try in whatever ways we can to make the most of this precious natural resource.
If you have some favourite ways to use autumn leaves to share, please share them in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.