The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to gather leaves for mulch

Crocuses in leaf mulch

One of the best things about leaves as mulch is that they're totally free.  If you live in town and pay attention, you can probably snag bags of leaves off the curb on trash day during the fall.  But if you're a rural dweller like me, you'll want to head into the woods to find your mulch.

Leaves gather in dipsOne of the primary purposes of mulch in the garden is to prevent weeds from growing, so it's essential that you rake leaves from weed-free areas.  Mature forests (or yard trees over manicured lawns) are your best bet --- our younger forest areas are home to the invasive Japanese stilt grass, which I don't want to introduce into my garden.

Look for dips in the landscape and areas without a lot of understory growth for easiest leaf harvests.  The old logging road shown here tends to accumulate leaves drifting down the hill, making it easy for me to scoop them up.

If you're able to drive right to your leaf-gathering location, you'll probably choose to use a Duffel bags full of leavesleaf rake and some sort of bin to gather leaves.  But if you're walking off the beaten path, I've found it easiest to simply scoop leaves with my hands into large duffel bags, compacting the leaves frequently so you get the most leaves per trip.  To save your back, gather leaves during dry weather.  (Wet leaves are heavy.)

Tiny salamander

The partially decomposed duff beneath this year's leaves might be worth harvesting too, as long as you don't mind creating a slight erosion potential in the spot where you stole the leaves.  Duff is heavier than undecomposed leaves, which means it's less likely to blow away in the garden, and it is often full of beneficial mycorrhizae which will boost the growth of your garden plants.  However, if you delve into the duff, try to pay attention and don't harm the critters living there --- I moved this tiny salamander to the side with a handful of humus and covered him back over so he wouldn't dry out.

More in a later post about the best ways to use leaf mulch in the garden.  Meanwhile, what tips would you add about leaf harvest?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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When collecting leaves in the city I try to go for the clear bags so I can see the contents because sometimes people stick trash in with their leaves too. Mowed and mulched leaves as well as pine needles bagged and on the curb are a big bonus find for me. Also I've noticed that leaves that are left all winter and then bagged in the spring before people begin mowing usually are already somewhat broken down, but are also usually wet and heavy.

I spent a little time weeding this weekend and realized I'd rather just mulch everything instead.

Frontyard after mulching

Backyard after mulching

Looking at the pictures it looks like I still need to weed the rock path.

Comment by Brian Wed Feb 8 09:36:22 2012
Your little salamander looks like Plethodon glutinosis. Did he leave behind a sticky residue on your fingers?
Comment by Jeff Wed Feb 8 12:18:30 2012

Brian --- I know what you mean about mulching instead of weeding. I figure an hour mulching at this time of year saves me about three to five hours of weeding in the summer (when I'm busier.) Plus, it's just more fun.

By the way, your mulched beds look beautiful!

Jeff --- Yup, I was assuming it was a Slimy, even though it didn't slime me. They're our most common salamander (although we also have one that has a similar coloration pattern and is possibly more likely due to the dry habitat where I found this guy --- the Ridge and Valley Salamander.) It's hard to do much ID when they're so tiny (and ready to scurry away.)

Comment by anna Wed Feb 8 13:08:48 2012

One tool I use in gathering leaves in the woods is a tarp. I lay the tarp flat, rake the good pile of leaves onto the middle of my tarp, fold the corners in, and carry it out, Santa style. I have also seen people make a burrito style pack: fold opposite corners in to the middle and tie them, then roll it up the other corners. Finally they tie ropes around it like your duffel bags. They can either carry it or put it on their backs. (but the ropes look like they dig in something fierce.) I like your duffel bags. Strong and big.

Comment by Eric in Japan Wed Feb 8 16:31:13 2012
Eric --- Good tip! I used tarps a bit, and they are very easy to rake onto. Harder to get quite so many leaves compacted into them, so less efficient if you're carrying them a long distance. (But that could be a good think since I tend to lift more than I should carry if given an opportunity... :-) )
Comment by anna Wed Feb 8 18:22:07 2012

Funnily enough, I was just considering the value of leaves as a mulch today. I've been clearing out the copious leaf cover in many areas of my property, and I noticed all the dead spots beneath them. This seems like a good alternative to other methods of sod removal, and I think I'll be trying it on some spots I want cleared next year.

The other great thing about leaves is that you can run them through a small wood chipper once you're done with them, and they then make a great addition to a compost heap.

Comment by Lindsay Wed Feb 8 22:02:13 2012
Lindsay --- Sounds like you made a really simple kill mulch! I'd probably leave the leaves in place after you kill the lawn and use them as mulch (although that might be a bit high carbon for a vegetable garden unless you raked back the leaves, added a hearty dose of compost, then put them back in place.
Comment by anna Thu Feb 9 14:10:26 2012

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