Your dead leaves are far more valuable for your garden than you think

Mulch today leads to rich garden soil later on


Your dead leaves are far more valuable for your garden than you thinkGarden Variety is an occasional column about growing plants without grief.

If your Ring camera caught somebody loading your brown paper bags of yard leaves off the sidewalk and into a hatchback, it might have been me, and I’m not sorry.

Those leaves are mulch now and will be rich garden soil in the future, and I couldn’t let the city take them away.

In my youth, when I still lived next door to my Aunt Debbie in the woods that Sugarloaf Parkway would replace, I asked her where dirt comes from. She told me dirt is made of rotted leaves.

The soil in the backyard woods, under a new leaf duvet every year, was alive with the tree roots and moss and worms that we could see, along with fungi and bacteria we couldn’t. Under the shade, crabgrass and other weeds wouldn’t grow. Instead, we had native honeysuckles, oaks, and even a few yellow daisies. That’s healthy soil.

It’s hard to replicate that biodiversity in the city or a subdivision, but leaves help.

Their first use is as a mulch. A mat of leaves raked around a tree trunk or a shrub will smother weed seeds.

Over time those leaves will rot—which is to say, critters and fungus and bacteria will eat the leaves and leave microscopic, uh, excrement. But to a plant, that’s fertilizer.

I did the bagged leaf–lifting back when I lived in East Lake and my whole domain was a townhouse yard and a community garden plot. Nutrients were coming out of my soil in the form of vegetables and flowers, and I needed to put back in some good, natural fertilizer. So the garden got put to bed for the winter with a few inches of leaf cover. I chucked whole brown bags into the plot. (Friends in the soil will eat plain brown paper too.)

Now, unknown curb leaves are a risk because there could have been anything in those bags—up to and including weed seeds, herbicides, dog poop, and possum corpses. But I was desperate for leaves and willing to take a chance. Sure, store-bought mulch and fertilizers exist, but they have costs in time, excess plastic bags, and pollution.

Instead, this fall, if you have a tree (or a hatchback), use leaves at home and save yourself some trouble.

Maggie Lee has been gardening in metro Atlanta half her life and now runs Yonder Farm, a cut flower and herb farm in Fairburn.