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Learn how to turn fall leaves into garden soil to have your healthiest, most productive gardens ever — while reducing waste! 

Dead leaves are nature’s fertilizer

It’s never the wrong season to improve your garden soil, but fall and early winter are particularly ideal for this task. Why?

In forests, fall is the time of year that trees “fertilize” themselves by dropping an abundance of carbon in the form of leaves and dead limbs. Soil organisms — from worms to fungi — thrive on this heavy supply of organic matter, creating nutritious soil for surrounding plants.

how to turn fall leaves into garden soil, by GrowJourney

What an organic gardener’s brain sees and says when encountering fall leaves: “Free organic garden soil!”

Gardeners can take advantage of this natural process by mimicking the forest floor in their own garden beds or compost piles. That’s why you’ll never see a pile of leaves by the street in a good gardener’s yard! 

Instead they convert their fallen leaves into rich, living garden soil that growths healthy, nutrient-dense plants. One person’s waste is another person’s treasure. 

How to turn fall leaves into garden soil

Newly fallen Japanese maple leaves on a pond.

Newly fallen Japanese maple leaves on our backyard duck pond.

Depending on what climate zone you’re located in and/or whether you grow a fall and winter garden, use the steps below to turn fall leaves into rich garden soil:

Option 1: For cold northern climates and/or gardeners who do NOT grow in the cold months

1. Rake or gather bags of fallen leaves.

2. Ideally, you can use a mulching mower to chop the leaves/debris into smaller pieces BEFORE putting them in your garden. Having smaller sized material will speed up the decomposition process and also allow for more water penetration during rains.

3. Put temporary mesh fencing around your garden beds in order to hold the leaves in place.

4. Begin pouring leaves into fenced garden beds. Use garden hose sprayer to wet leaves as you put them in. Easiest way to do this is to put in 6″ leaves, wet them with hose sprayer, then add another 6″ of leaves. Pile them up to 3′ deep.  

5. When done, place fallen tree limbs and branches on top of the leaves to help prevent them from blowing out, while still allowing rain to come in. If the leaves are NOT wet, they will NOT decompose, so don’t cover the pile with plastic or tarps.    

6. The leaves will decompose slowly over the winter. As the weather warms, the decomposition rate will accelerate dramatically. By the time your last frost date has arrived and it’s time to plant your summer garden, the 2′ pile of leaves should be reduced to about 90% good soil, with ~10% leaves remaining on top.

7. Planting time! You can dig holes and put your transplants into the soil beneath, leaving the top layer of leaves for mulch. If direct sowing your seeds, gently rake off top layer of leaves until you reach the soil layer, then direct sow. 

*Special note for dry/desert climates: If you live in an area that doesn’t receive weekly or bi-weekly rain, you’ll need to add water to your leaf piles to aid in decomposition. Worms and microbes can not break down the carbon-rich leaves without water present.  

Option 2: For warm and mild climates and/or gardeners who DO grow in the cold months

We highly recommend gardening every month of the year. Obviously, putting a 3′ deep pile of leaves on top of your plants will kill them, so don’t do that! 

You can top-dress your cold weather garden beds with several inches of chopped leaves. What about all the extra bags of leaves you’ve got? 

Follow these instructions: 

1. Using flexible fencing or hardware wire, erect a large circular enclosure. Openings should be small enough to hold chopped leaves in.

Dimensions of your enclosure will depend on the quantity of leaves you have. We typically use a 3-4′ tall enclosure with a diameter (distance across) of about 4′. 

2. Follow steps 2-6 in the instructions from the previous section. 

3. Once the weather is warm again, you’ll have a pile of nice, rich soil that you can use as compost or garden soil in your beds.

If you don’t want to wait for the leaves to fully decompose, you can pull back the top layer of leaves on the pile to the point that you can get to the rich soil underneath. Dig out as much as you need, leaving the remaining leaves to continue to decompose.  

Save and use those fall leaves! 

Now you know how to turn fall leaves into garden soil! Healthier soil = healthier plants = healthier people. 

Happy gardening from GrowJourney!