I've been known to drive around my neighborhood in autumn and snag bags of leaves off the curb. Why? Because there are so many ways to use them in the garden! I add dry leaves to compost, use them in my chickens' run as bedding, mulch with them and more. Here are 5 great reasons why you should leave your leaves in the garden.Chicken Bedding. My hens love nothing more than scratching around in a nice thick layer of leaves. I collect bags of leaves in fall and store them in a dry spot over the winter. Every couple of weeks I spread a 6 to 8 inch layer in the chickens' run. The leaves slowly decompose as they mix with the chicken droppings. In spring, I scoop out the fluffy compost and use it to topdress my ornamental beds.
Mulch. Take a look at any forest floor and it is clear that Mother Nature intended leaves to be mulch. The only problem with using leaves as a mulch in the garden is they tend to form a dense, soggy mat when they get wet, which can smother any plants underneath. The easiest way to get around this problem is to shred the leaves before you layer them over the soil. You can collect the leaves off your lawn and shred them at the same time by mowing over the leaves with a mower that has a bag attached. The mower sucks the leaves up off the lawn and mixes them with grass clippings. This mix of grass and leaves stays nice and fluffy and decomposes more quickly than straight leaves. Layer a 3 inch of the mixture over the soil in ornamental beds.
Compost. A compost pile breaks down most efficiently when it is built with 1:3 ratio of green, nitrogen-rich ingredients (like grass clippings) to brown carbon-rich ingredients. Leaves are full of carbon and make an excellent "browns" compost addition. I like to stock pile leaves in the fall so I have them on hand in the summer when my garden is producing lots of green waste that needs to be composted.
Leaf Mold. Basically leaf mold is just leaves that have broken down into a dark, crumbly compost-like material. It couldn't be easier to make. Just pile some shredded leaves up and let them sit there until they decompose, which usually takes about 8 to 12 months. When mixed into the soil, leaf mold adds nutrients and keeps the soil light while also helping it retain moisture.
Create Beneficial Insect Habitat. Leaves can act as a refuge for beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife during the winter. Rake leaves underneath hedges or place piles of them in an out of the way corner of your yard.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in February.
(Image: Willi Galloway)