Autumn leaves are not just an attractive element of the season. They should be viewed by all organic gardeners as a natural gift – an extremely useful resource that we can use when working with nature in our gardens.
Many organic growers will already be well aware of the many ways in which autumn leaves can be used. Delving a little deeper into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges presented by different types of autumn leaves can help us to understand what to do with leaves in autumn.
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Types of Autumn Leaves
When we talk about what to do with leaves in autumn, we are typically referring not to evergreen leaves that remain on trees and shrubs over the winter months, but rather to the leaves of deciduous trees that have died back and dropped to the ground in the process known as leaf drop or abscission.
But even when it comes to these dead leaves that have dropped to the ground, it is important to recognise that there is a lot of variety. These leaves vary in thickness and texture. Some are much quicker to break down than others, while some can take much longer to decompose.
Here are some common native autumn leaves and their characteristics:
Beech – Fagus sylvatica
Beech leaves turn a reddish brown through autumn. Some do drop to the ground but as those with beech hedges will be aware, many leaves also remain in place on the plant even once they turn brown and die. This is called marcescence and trees which exhibit this are sometimes called ‘everciduous’. When they do drop to the ground, the leaves decompose only very slowly, forming a thick carpet below.
Oak – Quercus robar
You may also wonder what to do with leaves in autumn such as oak. Oak leaves turn yellowing brown and like the beech, may retain some leaves in some areas over the winter months, even after they have died. Most leaves, however, will fall to the ground. But again, like the beech, the oak leaves will break down only relatively slowly. These leaves contain high levels of tannins and are slightly acidic in nature.
Hornbeam – Carpinus betulus
Hormbeam leaves tend to remain on the trees/ shrubs for longer than with many other species, remaining on the trees as they gradually change from yellow to orange and brown. They can often, like beech leaves, remain on the trees over winter. When they do fall, they are also relatively slow to break down. If you are wondering what to do with leaves such as hornbeam, they may well last longer than others on this list.
Hazel – Corylus avellana
Hazel leaves turn yellow in October and typically drop by the beginning of winter. Once these leaves are on the ground they break down quickly.
Hawthorn – Crataegus monogyna
Hawthorn leaves can turn vivid hues from yellow to orange to red before they drop, typically in around November, leaving the bright red berries behind. These are fairly high in lignin and take a while to break down.
Ash – Fraxinus excelsior
Ash leaves are relatively low in lignin and so break down quite quickly to release the nutrients that they contain. They are usually fairly early to drop, doing so typically some time in late October after the leaflets have turned yellow.
Maple – Acer ssp.
Maples are famed for the vivid hues of their autumn foliage. Field maples will tend to drop their leaves in November after displaying their colours for a month or so. Once they fall to the ground, they will still typically take a relatively long time to decompose.
Poplars – Populus ssp.
Poplars have leaves that are relatively low in lignin and high in nitrogen and calcium and so they will tend to decompose relatively quickly. What to do with leaves of this kind has never been more practical.
Willows – Salix ssp.
Willows, likewise, have low-lignin and high nitrogen and calcium leaves that are relatively quick to break down and return their nutrients to the soil.
Fruit tree leaves – Malus, Prunus etc…
If you have fruit trees like apples, plums, cherries etc. in your garden, these also have leaves that will fall in autumn and be used in a number of different ways. These leaves will tend to break down relatively quickly.
Of course, there are many more trees, native and otherwise, to learn about. All deciduous tree leaves can be useful in a garden, but which trees you are looking at will often determine how best the material is used and what to do with leaves are this variety.
What to do with leaves:
Wondering what to do with leaves? Here are the uses for autumn leaves. 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.
We discuss these uses in more depth in this article about how to make use of autumn leaves.
By going a little deeper, we should think a little more about how leaves of different tree species are best used in a garden or in a home.
Top 5 Ways To Use Autumn Leaves in Your Garden
By looking at the different types of autumn leaves, and what to do with leaves, we can find out how to identify autumn leaves and work out which are best suited to different uses in the home and garden.
1. Autumn Leaves for Composting in a Typical Heap or Bin
Autumn leaves do not necessarily have to be dealt with separately from other organic matter in your garden. Whether they break down quickly or slowly all deciduous leaves can be added in moderation to a composting system. But leaves can become matted and lead to an anaerobic mix, or dry out and cause decomposition in the heap to slow down.
For a typical composting system, it is best to select leaves that break down relatively quickly, and ideally you should shred those leaves before you combine them with nitrogen rich materials in the heap or bin.
Some good leaves for composting that will break down relatively quickly include:
Ash, maple, poplar, willow, fruit tree leaves…
2. Autumn Leaves for New Garden Beds
Autumn leaves can also be very useful in a garden to create new beds or growing areas using no dig gardening methods like hugelkultur or lasagna gardening.
As you layer up the organic materials to create new beds or growing areas, however, it can be helpful to think about what you want to grow in that bed and how which leaves you choose might influence those plants and the conditions in the area.
For example, oak leaves won’t acidify the soil much. But if you are growing acid-loving species, using somewhat acidic materials cannot hurt.
3. Autumn Leaves for Mulch
The same thing is true if you plan on using leaves as mulch. You need to think about whether or not the leaves you choose will have an impact on ph, and also how else they will alter the environmental conditions.
Remember to consider how quickly the leaves in question will break down. Sometimes it can be beneficial for the leaves to remain intact for longer to create a more effective covering for the soil.
Beech leaves, for example, or maple leaves, can be good for placing around plants as a soil-covering mulch that you wish to remain in place for a longer period of time.
4. Autumn Leaves for Leaf Mould
When learning how to make leaf mould compost, it is a good idea to group leaves together according to how long they take to break down. Some leaves can create a finished leaf mold within a year, while in most cases, it is best to leave your leaves for a couple of years to get the finished product.
Ash, birch, elm, lime, oak, poplar and willow will break down relatively quickly and you can have a finished leaf mould in a year.
Hawthorn, maple, sycamore and horse chestnut leaves, to name a few examples, are best shredded or chopped up and will still tend to take a couple of years to be ready for use.
5. Autumn Leaves for Arts and Crafts or Decoration
Of course, many different leaves from your garden might be used in arts or crafts projects or used to decorate inside your home. Autumn leaves give you the opportunity to indulge your creative side and at the end of the day, it does not really matter which leaves you choose to use.
Using Autumn Leaves in a Polytunnel
Remember, you can use autumn leaves in a domestic polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden. But how you should use the leaves you are able to gather will depend on which trees and shrubs you have access to, and the characteristics of those different types of autumn leaves.
So learn more about different autumn leaves and their composition in order to become a better gardener and use this precious resource in the best possible ways. For more helpful tips on what to grow in autumn, try these hardy Asian greens that you can sow in autumn, as well as how to appropriately safety in your polytunnel in autumn and winter.
What are the most common types of autumn leaves I might find in my garden?
The most common types of autumn leaves you might find in your garden include:
Maple: Known for their brilliant red, orange, and yellow hues.
Oak: Typically turn a deep red, brown, or russet.
Beech: Turn a golden yellow or light tan.
Birch: Display a bright yellow.
Aspen: Known for their vibrant golden-yellow colour.
Are there any types of autumn leaves I should avoid using in my garden?
While most autumn leaves are beneficial for the garden, it’s best to be cautious with leaves from Black Walnut and Eucalyptus trees. Black Walnut leaves contain juglone, a natural herbicide that can inhibit the growth of some plants. Eucalyptus leaves contain compounds that can slow down the decomposition process and might not be as beneficial as other leaves when used as mulch or compost.
Can I use autumn leaves as a protective barrier against pests?
Yes, a layer of autumn leaves can deter certain pests. Slugs and snails, for instance, don’t like navigating through dry leaves. By spreading them around the base of plants, you can create a natural barrier against these pests. However, ensure the leaves are dry; wet leaves can attract slugs.
How can I use autumn leaves to protect my plants during winter?
Autumn leaves can act as a natural insulator. By piling them around the base of tender plants or covering garden beds with a thick layer, you can protect the plants from frost and cold temperatures. The leaves trap air and create an insulating layer, helping to regulate the soil temperature and protect plant roots.
Discover Wildlife. (n.d.) How to identify autumn leaves. [online] Available at: https://www.discoverwildlife.com/how-to/identify-wildlife/how-to-identify-autumn-leaves/ [accessed 29/09/23]
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.