Keep your fall leaves to support wildlife and build healthy soil

Why You Need to Keep Your Fall Leaves and What to do with Them

When the leaves start to fall from the trees what do you do with them? If you’re like most people you rake them up and get rid of them. But you should keep your fall leaves. From supporting wildlife to building soil, keeping your fall leaves will help you heal the living world. Let’s dive into why you need to keep your fall leaves and what to do with them.

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I just love fall leaves—every fall I go around to my neighbors and get tons of bags of leaves from them. I can’t get enough fall leaves.

And my goal today is to convince you to keep your fall leaves.

Show Notes:

You're reading the show notes for an episode of the Growing with Nature podcast. You can listen to this episode by using the player at the bottom of this section right before the resources list. If you enjoy the episode don't forget to subscribe so you never miss out on future episodes.

So why are fall leaves so awesome? Let’s think about what happens in a forest and how soil is built in it.

Every fall in a forest the falling leaves along with branches, downed trees, and other organic material build up a layer of duff.

Over time this duff layer breaks down through the action of fungi and other soil life and turns into rich healthy soil.

But this layer of duff does more than build healthy soil. It also mulches the forest floor helping to keep it moist. And the duff layer also provides a home to a diverse range of wildlife.

Fall leaves are key to an abundant and healthy forest filled with life.

And you can use them to cultivate abundance where you live too. Let’s dive into the benefits of fall leaves and what to do with them.

And if you like what you hear today, then please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen. Your review will help more people find us.

People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

Okay, let’s get started.



Episode Resources:

Further Reading and Listening: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.

Books and Other Resources

Keep Your Fall Leaves to Support Wildlife

Keep your fall leaves to support wildlife like frogs

Frogs and lots of other wildlife take shelter in fall leaves. Without a layer of fallen leaves, these critters won’t have a place to weather the summer heat and the chill of winter.

Frogs, snakes, beetles, toads, and many more types of wildlife rely on a nice layer of fall leaves. Every fall nature drops a nice cozy blanket of leaves that protect small critters from the winter chill.

Without that blanket of fall leaves, these critters wouldn’t survive through the winter.

Instead of trying to build critter hotels, or habitat features just let the leaves be where they are. Over time a layer of duff will build up just like it does in a forest.

Just make sure to also leave any branches that fall to the ground. Not only will they provide more shelter the branches will also help keep the leaves from blowing around.

Wild Tip:

You can add leaves, and branches that fall on your driveway, sidewalks, and other similar areas to your growing areas. This can help build the duff layer even quicker around your trees and shrubs.

When you leave the leaves every fall the population of frogs, snakes, and many types of insects will increase. The result will be a more abundant and diverse environment. And this will also help keep pests in check by supporting the predators that eat them.

If you want to help heal the living world you need to keep your fall leaves on the ground.

Keep Your Fall Leaves to Build Healthy Soil

When plants break down, keep them on your homestead to improve your soil.

Even hard clay soils can be turned into rich healthy soil by using mulch such as fall leaves combined with perennial plants.

In the previous episode, we looked at how you can help your property adapt and even thrive in the face of droughts and heatwaves caused by climate change.

If you haven’t listened to it yet make sure to check it out.

One of the ways to do this is to build rich healthy soil by increasing the amount of organic material in it. When you do this not only will the soil provide the nutrients your plants need to thrive but it will also retain more water.

All that extra water will make your property far more resilient to droughts and heatwaves.

And leaving fall leaves on the ground where they fall is one of the easiest ways to add organic material to your soil and build healthy soil.

This is exactly what happens in a forest.

When the leaves fall to the ground they will be broken down by decomposers like millipedes and worms. Fungi will then further break down the shredded pieces with bacteria helping to finish the process.

The result is that perfect dark, crumbly soil just like you find on the forest floor. This rich healthy soil will support a diverse community of soil life that will in turn provide the nutrients your plants need to thrive.

Plus, that soil will hold a large amount of water making your property more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

If you want to build rich healthy soil then you should keep your fall leaves.

How to Use Your Fall Leaves

Dealing with drought on the homestead does not stop in the fall/winter

If your neighbors don’t want their fall leaves, ask them if you can have their leaves. Their loss is your gain—and the life where you live will thank you.

You need to keep your fall leaves. This free resource will help you cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

By supporting wildlife and building healthy soil keeping your fall leaves will help heal the living world.

So let’s talk a bit about how to use them.

You don’t have to leave the leaves everywhere they fall—concentrating them can provide more benefits than letting them spread out.

The best place to use fall leaves is under your trees, shrubs, and other perennial plants. As your soil improves in these areas the leaves will turn to duff by the end of spring after they fall to the ground.

Your flowers and other non-woody herbaceous plants will all grow through the leaves without any issues and they will love the duff layer.

Native plants especially will thrive in these conditions.

But you do need to be careful adding extra leaves beyond those that fall from your trees and shrubs if you’ve got herbaceous plants growing there too. Fall leaves can smoother out your small plants if you put the leaves on too thick.

But that is only an issue if you’re adding extra leaves from other areas of your property.

And that brings us to what to do with the leaves that fall on your driveway, sidewalks, lawns, or other areas where you don’t want the leaves.

Wild Tip:

A quick note about leaves on your lawn. If your lawnmower has a mulching mode you can just mow the leaves when you mow your lawn. They will be shredded and mixed with cut grass. A mulching mower will push that mix of grass and leaves down into the grass where it will break down and help feed your lawn.

This is what I do on my small lawn—I don’t water or fertilize it and the lawn does great without needing those inputs. 

For all the leaves you rake or sweep up from your driveway, sidewalks, and other similar areas there are several options for using them.

One great option is to use them to prepare new growing areas. Cardboard with fall leaves placed on top can quickly turn a grassy area into the perfect spot for a new garden, food forest, or hedgerow. This is known as sheet-mulching.

And if you put the leaves on thick enough you can even skip the cardboard. Just make sure to add some branches to hold the leaves in place on windy days.

You can also just spread the leaves out around your existing trees and shrubs. This way the leaves won’t be too thick in any one place but they will still help you build abundance. I like to add leaves under my hedgerows and fruit trees.

Plus, if you’ve already mulched the soil with woodchips, you can use the fall leaves as a top dressing to speed up the breakdown of the woodchips.

And of course, you can also just use fall leaves in your compost piles. Fall leaves are high in carbon and generally low in nitrogen so make sure to add nitrogen-rich material with your fall leaves.

Though you can also make leaf mold by creating a pile of leaves and letting it break down slowly for 1 to 3 years. The pile should be at least 3-feet by 3-feet by 3-feet. What you get after 1 to 3 years is a pile of ready-made duff to add around your plants.

Check out the links in the resources section to learn more about leaf mold and the other topics covered in this episode.

Regardless of how you use your fall leaves, you need to keep your fall leaves and not get rid of them. Keeping the leaves will let you cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at how to get started with building critter homes. A simple pile of logs surrounded by a layer of fall leaves can support a wide range of wildlife. But that is just the start—join us next week to learn more.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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