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Laub als Winterschutz und Mulch nutzen

Don't blow those leaves away!

Jude Jude
18/11/2021 · 6 minutes reading time

One deal-breaker for me: people who don't love autumn. The crisp, cool air, the warm spiced beverages, the football…and of course, the colourful leaves as they turn from green to gold and red.

But they are not just beautiful to look at – these colourful autumn leaves are actually very useful for mulching and fertilising. Call it an early Christmas gift from Mother Nature.

And whereas many people prefer to go after these fallen leaves with rakes and leaf blowers, in the end, does it make sense to remove leaves after all? Or could we better use this free gardening material and give these leaves a second life?

What's ahead:

Picture this scene: the wind is sending its falling leaves flying all around in a swarm of autumn beauty. And many people gather their weapons to fight it: heavy artillery is deployed inside. Vrr, vrr, vroomm, vroommmmmmmmm. The army of leaf blowers is on the way, waging war against the autumn winds. It's the 2021 Michael Bay adaptation of Don Quixote fighting against windmills. For every small strike that blows the leaves into a pile in the garden, the wind strikes back, once again scattering it in every direction.

Das sind die schönsten Laubbläser: ausgeschaltet und still.
This is how you should use your leaf blower: switched off and silent.

Why leafblowers are ruthless killing machines of doom

Leaf blowers and leaf vacuums are not only insanely annoying noise machines (up to 110 decibels – blimey!), they are also harmful to the environment in every respect due to their fuel and energy consumption. Plus, people who use them breathe particulate matter and unfiltered exhaust gases. And countless little animals that do important tasks in the garden are killed; ants, spiders, worms, beetles, butterfly larvae, woodlice and millipedes don't stand a chance as the literally man-made tornado decimates their homes.

So removing leaves is a really bad idea. Here's why:

  • Foliage acts as a natural frost protection for trees, bushes and beds in winter.

  • It keeps moisture in the soil and saves you unnecessary watering.

  • It prolongs the activity of the soil organisms that make your garden fertile for next spring.

  • Foliage supplies the earth with valuable nutrients when it rots, thereby "setting the table" for heavy eaters in the next growing cycle.

  • A layer of leaves suffocates unwanted wild growth.

  • Leaves can be used in preparation for a new bed.

  • You can easily turn fallen leaves into compost soil.

Leaves as a heated blanket and/or food-source for tiny critters

While we turn up the heat in our living rooms during autumn and winter, earthworms and the itty-bitty critters outside are at the mercy of wind and weather. If you want to find good soil again next year, spread a warming layer of mulch over your beds and in your pots. Under it, the soil organisms can continue their work longer and convert the leaves into valuable humus soil.

Where do I get mulch material?

In autumn, all the mulch material you need is lying around free of charge. You can collect leaves from different trees – a mix of varieties is good because they bring different ingredients to the table. If it's damp, let it dry before you spread it out. Just be careful with leaves that are right next to busy roads, as they can be contaminated with pollutants that would then find their way into your garden beds or vegetable and herb pots. (With potted flower plants, this is less critical, since you won't be eating them.)

Ein grüner Spaten steckt in aufgewühlter Erde.
Looking for that spade? Better leave it in the cupboard! There are more soil-friendly ways to get your beds ready for the winter.

Tilling in autumn

Before you distribute leaves on the beds, you should work the soil with gentle tools. A sow tooth, a cultivator and a digging fork will be your best friends for roughening the surface of the soil. Stay away from spades, as they can damage the soil organisms by exposing the animals and bacteria that have to live in the dark to the light and vice versa. With Christmas right around the corner, you don't want to be the person who brings death to everyone. In addition, the fine structure of the humus layer of soil is destroyed, and your vegetables will find it extremely difficult to grow in the next season. Digging is not one of your autumn tasks for your garden.

By the way: in the summertime, it rains less than in autumn and winter, when the amount of rainy days increases. Due to climate change, it is important to store this precious moisture in the earth so that your plants can feed on soaked soil in spring. When you spread leaves, this directs the moisture into the soil and keeps it there, like a good insulating layer. On bare, hard ground, the water simply runs off and disappears into the sewer system (or into your cellar…).

Türkisfarbener Gartenrechen liegt auf herbstlichem Boden.
Just leave the rake and the leaves behind. Don't pull the leaves to the side until spring, and start the gardening year immediately with a new bed underneath!

Creating a new bed from leaves

Do you want to create a new bed on your lawn? Then grab a bunch of leaves and spread them out in the grass wherever you want your new bed to be. The layer should be really thick, so that the grass underneath suffocates. In addition, earthworms get food from the leaves and enrich the soil with nutrients. So you will find a perfectly prepared bed in spring, without having to do anything!

Pro-tip: It's best to weigh down your leaf bed with twigs and branches so that the leaves are not blown away by the wind.

Von Herbstlaub umgebene Schneeglöckchen.
Spring bloomers like snowdrops find their ideal growing conditions under warm leaves. The rotted autumn leaves serve as food, shelter and protection against competing weeds.

Keeping weeds away

Allowing leaves to lie about is not only good for your soil organisms, but it's also a good remedy for unwanted weeds. Under a thick layer of foliage, the wild plants cannot grow and wither in the spring.

And speaking of spring: if you want to sow directly into your bed, push the mulch cover aside two weeks before you plan to sow so that the soil can warm up.

Ein Blumenkasten ist mit Herbstlaub zugedeckt.

Foliage and balcony – a good match?

It's not just humans that experience frostbite. Some plants don't tolerate the cold winter temperatures particularly well either. They either experience frost damage or die off completely if left outside unprotected. To save the potted vegetables and herbs on your balcony, you can spread autumn leaves on the ground around them. Just be careful not to get any walnut leaves, as they are high in tannins, which can damage your edible plants (you can use walnut leaves for purely ornamental plants). Oak and maple leaves, for example, are perfect.

If you want to protect your green balcony friends even more, you can put their pots in empty sacks (e.g. from potting soil) or jute sacks and stuff the gap between the pot and sack with leaves. This gives your plants a warming cushion. In spring you can put the remaining leaves on the compost, or use it as a mulch layer for young plants in the bed.

Herbstlaub wird auf den Kompost gelegt.

What about composting with leaves?

With the exception of spruce, fir and pine needles, all leaves can get in on the composting action. The needles listed would make the compost too acidic, which should be avoided, as many plants cannot tolerate an acidic environment. Diseased leaves are not invited to the party either, as fungal spores and bacteria can still be alive and able to spread.

Alternative to compost: A simple “cage” for the leaves can be built with a rabbit wire. You can throw your compost in there if you don't want it to fly around the garden or damage your lawn. By May at the latest, you will have ready-made compost heap that you can spread on your beds!

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