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Water Cooler: Use leaves for mulch in your outdoor space

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 29, 2020

Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW A maple leaf is surrounded by snow in the front lawn of a home on Idaho Street in Post Falls in October 2019. Leaves make good mulch.

Have you found yourself leaning wearily against the handle of the rake yet this season, cursing the leaves that drop on the patch of grass you just cleared? Leaves can be a hassle to manage, but they can also be a valuable, seasonal gift to pass along to your landscape. Spokane and Spokane Valley both offer services to collect and compost green waste – which is great for reducing methane in local landfills, but why pass up all the benefits that organic matter can provide for your own outdoor space?

Leaves make for fantastic mulch, acting as a free and natural delivery system of nutrients and shielding your turf, gardens and flower beds from the dropping temperatures. Leaf mulch can prevent erosion and crusting of valuable topsoil and even helps decrease compaction from the moisture and weight of snow. They can significantly inhibit weed growth come spring, and their ability to regulate temperature even comes in handy during summer.

If you have a light covering of leaves on your grass, you can simply mow over them. Many mowers now have mulching settings. This is efficient and low-hassle leaf management, especially for those that only have a few trees on their property. Mowing the leaves breaks them down and makes for faster decomposition and allows the mulch to retain some airflow for the grass.

Those who accumulate a thicker layer of leaves on the lawn will have to remove some of them. Too much leaf build-up will make for slower decomposition, and this may end up damaging turf. If leaves create an impermeable mat on top of the grass, they can smother it and trap in too much moisture, potentially leading to mold growth. Put the this excess to other uses.

Leaves are essential brown material for keeping compost piles active during the winter. They add bulk that, when turned, helps create insulation with air space. Similar to the goose down of a jacket, this provides space to trap air and create a thermal barrier to the cold temperatures.

The layers of leaves It also helps maintain the oxidation and decay of the pile. Leaves on the top of the pile form a layer of insulation that will make you less reliant on adding extra hay and tarps to keep the compost pile warm.

A couple of inches of shredded leaves can be put around the base of trees and shrubs, helping to prevent weed growth around the trees, regulating temperature for their roots, preventing soil erosion and in the summer, reducing moisture evaporation. Make sure not to pile it too high – 3 or 4 inches is plenty. This is especially beneficial for new landscape plants. Leaves also work the same way in perennial beds and can be used to insulate roses.

Working shredded leaves into vegetable garden beds can add valuable nutrients and increase the porosity of the soil. Adding a thick layer of leaves between garden rows or raised beds can act as mulch in addition to creating a padded walkway that your knees will thank you for once you get back to gardening.

Leaf mulch also creates an ideal environment for earthworms, arthropods, other insects and microorganisms to flourish which is a great benefit to a healthy garden and lawn. With insect decline now a prominent concern, it is hugely beneficial to use fallen leaves to help create an environment for insects to survive in over the winter.

Whole leaves and shredded leaves can be used for this purpose. If you already have plenty of mulch, use the remainder to create a whole leaf pile in your yard if you have the extra space and it will serve as an important sanctuary to insects.

Think twice before throwing away this free and valuable material. Appreciating the year-round benefits of using leaves in your outdoor space may even give you an extra spark of motivation when you think your arms are too sore to go on raking.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or

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