Turn Autumn Tree Leaves Into Compost, Mulch And Organic Fertilizer

Autumn tree leaves are one of the most efficient organic fertilizers, as they contain virtually every nutritional element your plants need. Don’t overlook them as a garden and lawn compost or mulch.

autumn tree leaves in pennsylvania woods

Tree leaves are the end source of all of the elements a tree’s roots draw from the ground. Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Phosphorous, Nitrogen and Ash are found abundantly in leaves (amounts differ depending on the type of tree), and those elements are pretty much the complete food course for your plants. The yearly addition of leaves into your garden beds will eventually create a rich, dark soil with excellent tilth.

There are a number of ways to repurpose those tree leaves.


Tree leaves are a great addition to your compost pile. But as they’re very high in carbon (54:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio), make sure that you’ve got enough greens, kitchen scraps or manures(poultry or horse only) in the pile so the leaves break down in a timely manner. Without the added nitrogen they’ll mat together and form one big clump of dead, wet leaves.

Leaf Mold

You know that layer of black soil just under the leaves and twigs on the forest floor? That’s leaf mold and it feeds plants like nobody’s business. To make your own, create a 3′ by 3′ x 3′ bin from chicken wire (or similar fencing) and place it in a shady corner of your property. Rake your tree leaves and load them into the bin. Leave in place for one or two years , keep the pile consistently moist and turn only once a year. Fungi work on the leaves to break them down and eventually create leaf mold, which is a fantastic compost and soil builder. Expect your leaf mold to be about 1/3rd the volume of your original leaf pile.

According to the Rodale Book Of Composting: “Leaf mold is ordinarily found in the forest in a layer just above the mineral soil. It has the merit of decomposing slowly, furnishing plant nutrients gradually, and improving the soil structure as it does so. Leaf mold’s ability to retain moisture is amazing. Subsoil can hold a mere 20 percent of its weight in water; good, rich topsoil will hold 60 percent; but leaf mold can retain 300-500 percent of its weight.”

Shred tree leaves

You don’t need a fancy shredder to shred tree leaves, you just need a lawnmower. A mulching blade on your mower works best, as it will grind the leaves into tiny particles, small enough to force them down to the soil line where they’ll feed your lawn over the winter and add water holding capacity to the soil. If you have a bag mower and a standard mower blade, use the mower to shred the leaves, which will end up in the bag. That makes for a nice, clean yard and plenty of compostable material, as you’ll have the leaves and nitrogen-heavy lawn trimmings mixed together (see above).

Put autumn leaves to bed

My personal “leaf technique” is sloppy, but it works. I simply work tree leaves into my flower and vegetable beds with a garden cultivator. If any are already dry, I crumble them up and scatter them in the bed. This gets the leaves down into the soil where the worms, fungi and bacteria can go to work on them. By the following spring, the leaves have decomposed and have deposited their nutrients in the soil. It’s very important that you don’t just let the leaves lay on the surface of your garden bed. If they mat together, they’ll create a dense cover which won’t allow air and water through, although it will block weed seeds. Piles of dry leaves on your beds may simply blow away on the winter winds.

Tree leaves are a great gift for your garden – don’t let them go to waste.

About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google
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5 Responses to Turn Autumn Tree Leaves Into Compost, Mulch And Organic Fertilizer

  1. Arnel W. Vitug says:

    I have lots of dried leaves in my backyard, if i shred the dried leaves , can i mixed a sawdust ?

    • Todd Heft says:

      Arnel: You can use sawdust if you know the source – clean wood. Products that are pressure treated, varnished, sealed, or otherwise use chemicals to protect against mold growth should never be used.

  2. TS says:

    With a little thought nature can be recycled or harnessed for all manner of things. A company I know is supplying a UK haulage company with wood chippings for bio-fuel. Where there’s a will …

  3. William says:

    I do wish more people would create an area within their property to make a compost pile. It would be a lot better than throwing it away and adding to landfills.

    Sincerely, William

  4. Great article, more people should adopt these concepts into their gardening.