Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Permaculture Tip: What to do with Autumn Leaves?

I had a question "from the audience" the other day, and I thought I would share it with my answer.

What would you do with your fall leaves if you were extremely short on time? I just purchased a home and don't have much time to work outdoors before winter sets in. I have a lawn that is covered in both deciduous leaves and conifer needles, but no dedicated garden beds, Permaculture projects, or compost bins going yet. Bottom line: How would you use those leaves to maximize next year's usage?

Short answer:
Save them all!

Long answer:
Loosely pile the leaves and run your lawnmower over them, or put them in a large, plastic garbage can and run your weed eater (a "whipper-snipper" in the UK) like a large kitchen blender. Then pile the leaves in one of two spots. The first location would be an out of the way spot that you may use for future compost bins. The second location would be in the general area where you will want to plant garden beds next year.

A few things to consider...
If your leaves are mostly dried and brown, consider adding some vegetable scraps from your kitchen or fresh lawn trimmings to the leaf pile. Dried leaves are high in carbon, but low in nitrogen. To get them composting well before the cold of winter hits, adding nitrogen-rich material will help. The alternative is also true. If the leaves are all green, then the addition of carbon-rich brown material would speed the composting process. However, there will likely be a mix of both, and these will eventually compost on their own without any help from us. Just like in a forest.

Pine needles take a long time to compost. If you can shred them with the lawnmower, it will help.

Freezing and thawing will help the leaves break up and decompose as well. Make sure there is enough moisture in the pile as you build it (AFTER the leaves are shredded!).

Other Options...
If you have any existing trees or shrubs that you are planning on keeping, you can pile the leaves underneath as natural mulch. Doing this after the leaves are shredded will minimize wind distribution.

If you plan on keeping chickens next spring, consider saving some of the leaves in a dry area. Maybe just piled high and covered with a tarp. These can be used as a deep litter source for a henhouse. A deep litter plan is the only way I would recommend keeping chickens unless they are being pastured. The book that best describes this is The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

I have also heard of people filling a bunch of garbage bags full of the leaves. The bags were stacked against a poorly insulated wall in a partially-exposed basement wall. This natural insulation dropped the owner’s heating bill. I imagine bags could be placed in attics or crawlspaces as well. They may be viewed as ideal nesting sites for rodents, but they could be removed easily.

A Permaculture Tip is an idea that is derived from observing and interacting with nature.  It is simple.  It is safe.  It is effective.  It helps build a sustainable system of agriculture and life in general.  If you have any Permaculture Tips you would like to share, please let me know.  I will post it here, give you the credit, and post a link to your blog or website if you have one.  Email me here:


  1. Really try to harvest those leaves in any way you can! If they are completely dry, and if you have the time, find a way to shred and bag them. I use a combination leaf blower/ shredder to reduce huge quantities down to a manageable size. In the spring, use them as mulch in th garden, or add them to your compost pile. I would use the pine/conifer needles as mulch on my garden paths and walkways, and as bedding for the chickens. Their manure may help to more quickly break down the needles.
    Gardener in Michigan


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