Each leaf is a bundle of nutrients all packaged up and ready to dissolve. Think of a leaf as a cup of tea. When you put tea leaves into a teapot and pour over hot water you immediately get flavour and colour. The longer you let your tea steep, the stronger the flavour and colour become. This is because nature is a system designed to be fully circular. As you wet the tea leaves they are releasing nutrients which you can see and smell. It is the same for leaves that fall from trees. As leaves fall to the ground and get wet, they return their goodness to the soil allowing the next generation of plants to grow.
Leaves are good for your vegetable gardens and leaves are good for compost. No matter which way you use leaves in the garden you are recycling leaves. There are so many ways that you can put leaves to good use in your garden.
Idea #1: Mow the leaves into your lawn to improve soil health
Leaves are a great mulch for your lawn and garden beds. When leaves are building up around your garden, you can get to work and recycle them. The first step is to sweep or rake the leaves into one or more piles, which is also a great way of getting some exercise. Next, use your lawn mower or a mulcher to shred the leaves. If you are mowing, you might need to take several passes over the pile. The aim is to reduce your leaves to the size of a cornflake or smaller.
By mechanically shredding the leaves, you are turning them into an instant organic fertiliser that can be left on your lawn or placed on a garden bed to break down. If you want, you can water the leaves and add a sprinkle of Blood and Bone to activate breakdown/composting process between lawn mower passes to help the leaves get a jump start on breaking down. Within weeks you won’t see a thing! Watch Australian Horticulturist of the Year (2010), horticulturalist Tim Edmonson from Get Growing demonstrate how he puts carbon straight back into the soil.
Idea #2: Use leaves in your compost
Leaves are an important source of carbon, which is an essential ingredient in composting. Any experienced composter will tell you that you need 50% brown matter and 50% green matter to strike the right balance. Brown matter includes leaves, straw, hay and paper while green materials include food scraps, fresh garden cuttings and grass clippings. For each bag, bucket, wheelbarrow, or mower catcher of green matter placed into your compost bin or layered onto your compost pile you need to apply an equal sized amount of brown matter.
Composting delivers rich black gold that you can place straight back onto your garden. Leaf compost is good for vegetable gardens and composting is a great way to recycle leaves. Compost slowly releases the nutrients your garden needs to survive and thrive. Think of compost as natural slow-release fertiliser. Organic material placed onto your garden beds not only delivers nutrients, but it improves your soil’s ability to retain water.
Compost not only saves you from having to buy chemical fertiliser it supports us moving towards a circular economy. Placing your green and brown materials into a compost bin or pile reduces landfill gas (mostly methane). You can learn more about composting from The Compost Revolution.
Idea #3: Build a leaf tower
At certain times of the year leaves can accumulate faster than your compost can handle. You can build your own storage system to save and store your leaves for later use. Think of this as a recycling station! Your leaf tower can be as simple as two or four stakes and a roll of chicken wire.
Here is how you can build your own leaf tower:
- Drive the two stakes into the ground approximately 1 metre apart
- Roll your chicken wire out in a circle or set it up in a square on the outside of your stakes
- Secure the chicken wire to the stakes with a few zip ties or wire
- Start filling up your leaf tower.
Your leaf tower can be a work of art that you can use to create a point of interest. Leaf towers can be visually stunning. All it takes is a bit of imagination. Look at how this leaf tower was constructed from wire. The lid at the top can be taken off to add leaves as required. Not only does the leaf tower stop the leaves from blowing away, it’s a work of art delivering a talking point in your garden.
Idea #4: Make your own mulch out of leaves
Are leaves piling up under trees in your garden or on your nature strip? Why not rake them up and put them to good use? Leaves are a good mulch that you can use in the garden. Using leaves as mulch is the easiest way to recycle leaves putting them straight to work in the garden.
Leaves can be placed direct onto your garden beds delivering a natural mulch layer. In summer a thick layer of mulch slows down evaporation and it keeps the soil cooler by blocking direct sunlight. Thick layers of mulch help to keep plant roots cooler allowing more time for plant growth during the warmer months. Not only does mulch help your garden all summer long, during cooler winter months mulch helps retain warmth. A 10cm layer of mulch placed on your garden bed is just like insulation used on your home. Learn how you can check your soil’s health quickly and easily here.
Keep adding organic material until a soil check shows you that your soil is teeming with microbes (e.g. worms and bugs). Not only do trees look good and keep us cool, they deliver a regular supply of leaves that we can recycle. By recycling leaves in the garden, you return carbon and other important nutrients back into your soil.
By using your leaves as a mulch layer, you can save yourself money. Think of every wheelbarrow of leaves as a cost saving of between $10 and $17 dollars. Rather than buying bales of hay, sugar cane mulch or bags of bark chips to layer on your garden you can simply gather up your leaves and place them in 5 or 10cm layers direct onto your garden beds. Over time the layers will slowly break down releasing nutrients into your garden bed and it will improve soil health.
Turn your leaves into a valuable resource
Using leaves on your garden is the easiest and cheapest way to supply your garden with the nutrients it needs to grow. For too long we have been fooled into buying expensive chemical fertilisers and we have supported expensive waste removal systems. We have been placing chemical fertilisers onto our gardens at such high rates the excess has been running off in storm water delivering the nutrients that toxic algal blooms need to grow closing our lakes and waterways. Nature is clever and we can save ourselves money by recycling leaves in the garden.
Leaves can be used fast by mowing them down into small flakes or they can be used slow delivering a protective layer that saves water and slowly breaks down over time improving soil health. No matter how you choose to use leaves on your garden, you will be putting carbon back into your soil along with the other key ingredients plants need to grow, including (but not limited to) Phosphorus (P), Nitrogen (N) and Potassium (K).
What is The Leaf Collective?
The Leaf Collective is a community-government-university partnership of people working together to keep leaves out of drains. Led by Griffith University and funded by the ACT Government, interested Canberrans have helped come up with lots of ways to make it easier to gather and use or remove the leaf litter falling near our stormwater drains.
In late 2020 the ACT Government invited proposals for a community-based social marketing approach to the problem of leaf litter polluting Canberra’s waterways. Community-based social marketing puts community wishes and needs at the centre, and then measures effectiveness through small pilot campaigns before scaling up. Social Marketing @ Griffith were the ideal fit for the job, with their “Co-create, Build, Engage” (CBE™) process. The project team applied CBE™, working with people in Canberra to understand what they’d like to see. Read more about that work here.
The Leaf Collective was the result. In autumn 2021 a range of discount offerings, leaf pick up services, an adopt-a-drain project, a citizen science app and other initiatives were tested by the project team. In just 6 weeks this pilot program got people living in Canberra involved. The evaluation study identified that the pilot helped to reduce the amount of leaves entering ACT waterways. People living in the ACT joined the collective diverting 200,000 litres of leaves out of stormwater drains.
Our work continues and this summer we are running a further pilot based on research completed late in 2021. You can explore program elements realised after co-creation by exploring our project website. You can also follow us on Facebook to watch how our work continues to unfold.
The Leaf Collective was co-created with ACT residents and experts working on water quality, waste removal, composting and much more.