With all of the plants in my container garden, using leaves for mulch was a no-brainer. The problem is that I don’t have a leaf shredder. I did some research to learn how to shred leaves and what to do with them.
Shredded leaves are a great substitute for traditional wood mulch. They can help keep the soil moist for a longer time and also improve soil quality.
How Do You Shred Leaves Without a Shredder?
Leaf mulchers are a worthy investment if you’re dealing with fallen debris on acres of land. However, you can easily take care of the leaves without one of these devices.
Here are a couple of shredder-free methods you can use to turn those fallen leaves into usable mulch.
Use a Lawn Mower
Lawnmowers are a great option if you don’t have a shredder on hand. Mowers use a lot of the same mechanics as a shredder, so why not use it to your advantage?
Just spread the leaves evenly over some clear grass, turn on your mower, and get to work.
For the best results, use a lawnmower with a catcher bag. These bags usually collect all of the yard trimmings for easy disposal. They’ll do the same when you’re using the mower to shred leaves.
You can also use a simple side-discharge mower, but you’ll have to collect the mulch later.
Use a Weed Eater or Trimmer
Own a weed wacker? This simple hand-held tool can easily shred leaves in minutes.
For this technique, you’ll need a large durable garbage can. Toss some of the leaves in the can. Then, turn on the trimmer while it’s inside.
The garbage can will keep all of those bits contained. You might have to do this in small batches, but the mess-free method works great. I recommend using some eye protection for good measure.
Driving or Walking on the Leaves
Fallen leaves are already delicate enough. Something as simple as walking or driving over them can shred them into a pulp.
To put your car to work, create two lines of leaves on your driveway. Make sure to position them so that both wheels crunch the leaves up. Then, drive over them a few times. It’s as simple as that.
Alternatively, you can let your pets or kids take care of the job. What child doesn’t love jumping in a pile of crunchy leaves? Let them have a few minutes of fun. Just don’t forget to have them wear some protection to avoid scratches.
Use a Leaf Blower Vacuum
If you have a leaf blower, it may have a shredding function already built-in. Leaf blower vacuums typically have some kind of mastication feature to reduce the space leaves take up.
For most vacuums, you can only work with small piles at a time. Test a pile out and see what kind of texture you can achieve. More feature-rich models may have high shredding ratios to give you an ultra-fine mulch.
Do You Have to Shred Leaves for Mulch?
You don’t have to shred leaves for mulch. You can use the whole leaves as well. However, you have to be a bit more careful about how you apply it.
Whole leaves will provide you with many of the same benefits. But you need to keep your mulch layer thin.
The issue with whole leaves comes down to its ability to let water and air pass through. One of the biggest benefits of mulch is that it allows water to pass through but also slowing down evaporation.
With large whole leaves, you’re creating a barrier that will prevent water from reaching the soil. It acts as a mat to keep water out. That’s something you don’t want. So, keep the layer thin to ensure that there’s still a route that water can take to penetrate the soil.
Whole leaves can also create some mold issues. No matter how pristine the soil may look, there’s a good chance that fungal spores are laying dormant. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Many types of fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plants and help them flourish. However, other types are just going to ruin the look of your garden. Problems start to pop up when bad fungi have the fuel to take over your garden.
When water sits on top of leaves instead of seeping into the soil, it creates the perfect environment for mold to grow. Pair that excess with a lack of proper air circulation and you have a recipe for disaster.
It’s best to break down leaves whenever possible. Shredded leaves provide that extra space for air and water to move freely. Plus, it’ll help the leaves decompose quicker.
Whole leaves have a knack for sticking around a long time. Without any shredding to kickstart decomposition, they can stay whole fora year or more.
You can still use whole leaves as a last-ditch effort to take advantage of yard debris. But, you need to be wary of the effects it could have on your garden.
How to Make Leaf Mold from the Shredded Leaves
Leaf mold contains a bevy of nutrients that can improve soil quality and nourish your plants.
In nature, leaf mold can take up to two years to develop naturally. However, you can speed up the process a bit with shredded leaves. Here’s how.
Create a Leaf Mold Bin
A simple leaf compost bin will allow the debris to decompose naturally over the course of several months.
Use fine chicken wire to create a cylinder or square box. The bin should measure at least three feet wide and three feet tall. For extra stability, use some wooden posts. Place the posts in the corners of a square bin or use them to strengthen the shape of the cylinder.
Now, just add your leaves. Moisten the leaves a bit to quickstart the decomposition process. If you shredded the leaves before adding them to the bin, it can take as little as six months to make leaf mold.
Check on the leaves periodically and hydrate them when they start to get a little dry. It’s also a good idea to turn the leaves every few weeks like you would with a compost pile.
Use a Heavy-Duty Garbage Bag
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making a bin, simple garbage bags work well, too.
Fill the bags about three-quarters full and add a bit of water. You can also add some soil to get things going. Then, secure the bag.
Once your bags are all tied up, poke holes along the bottom and sides to let air circulate through. Place the bags in a shaded place and wait. Like with compost bins, rehydrate the leaves as needed.
Collect Leaves as Soon as Possible
By shredding the leaves, you’re already doing a lot to speed up the process. That said, there are some things you can do to help your leaf mold along.
The first is collecting your leaves as quickly as possible. You see, leaves quickly lose their nitrogen content after falling from the tree. They’re high in carbon, which is beneficial. But, nitrogen is still crucial for proper decomposition.
By gathering your leaves early, there’s still a good amount of nitrogen to get things started.
Of course, collecting leaves early isn’t always possible. So, you can use a bit of nitrogen fertilizer. Apply a small dose of nitrogen in the fall. You can also use a compost starter or even urine. That nitrogen will feed the decomposition bacteria and turn the debris into usable leaf mold in no time.
How Do You Apply Leaf Mulch to a Garden?
You can apply leaf mulch to your garden beds like you would any other organic mulch product.
After shredding the leaves, apply a thin layer around your plants. Make sure to leave some room around the base. You don’t want the mulch touching stems or trunks.
As a good rule of thumb, apply a two or three-inch layer of leaf mulch around perennial plants. For larger trees or shrubs, you can bump the mulch layer up to three or four inches.
You must be careful about not overdoing the mulch. A thick layer of mulch could lock in too much moisture. It can prevent proper drainage for plants that need to stay relatively dry.
Using Leaf Mold
If you choose to create leaf mold instead of mulch, you have a few different ways to use it.
The easiest option would be to simply apply it like mulch. The nutrient-rich leaf mold will seep nutrients into the soil as you water your plants.
Alternatively, you can use it to prepare your soil for future plants. Work the leaf mold into the soil like you would with any compost. The nutrients will improve soil quality and get your garden in good shape for your next growing season.
Finally, leaf mold is great for creating nutrient-rich tea. Put the mold into a loose-knit bag. A burlap sack or mesh bag works well. Fill up a watering can with water, drop the bag into the water, and let everything soak for a few days.
This will create a dark-colored tea that you can use to water your plants. Do this once a month to give your plants a healthy dose of beneficial nutrients.
How Do You Keep Leaf Mulch from Blowing Away?
When compared to something like wood chips, leaf mulch is very lightweight. Shredded leaves have a light and fluffy texture, making them vulnerable to the wind.
If you don’t want your leaf mulch blowing away, here are some tips you can use to keep it in place.
Keep the Mulch Moist
Your easiest option is to keep the leaves moist. This won’t address all of the wind issues. Some stray pieces may escape your garden bed. But, moisture will do a lot to weigh the leaves down.
Dead leaves aren’t going to soak up water. However, the weight of the water will hold loose leaf particles down pretty effectively. Just don’t overdo things and waterlog your plants.
In times of heavy winds, water the leaf mulch lightly. This should do enough to keep most of the pieces contained.
A favorite for gardeners working on sloped land, mulch netting is an excellent option. You can find synthetic netting to apply over the mulch. However, I recommend using something like jute.
Whatever material you choose, apply it over the mulch, and secure it with landscaping pins.
Create a Retaining Wall
Short retaining walls or edging can keep the mulch safe in storms. Create a decorative border around your garden with bricks. Stack the bricks a few pieces high to block out the wind and prevent any stray mulch from leaving the garden bed.
You can also use prefabricated plastic edging. Just make sure that the product you use is completely solid. Decorative lattice fencing or basic picket-style fencing isn’t going to do you any favors here. The goal is to block out the wind and keep the mulch contained, so use a solid material.
How Long Does it Take for Mulched Leaves to Decompose?
In most cases, leaf mulch is not going to last more than a year in your garden bed. Typically, it takes between six months and a year for mulched leaves to decompose fully.
Several variables can speed up or slow down the process. If you live in a particularly dry area, the leaves may take longer to turn into leaf mold. The lack of moisture will slow down the process quite a bit.
On the other hand, leaves can decompose in as little as three months if you’re actively trying to turn them into compost. Keeping the leaves hydrated and turning over the layers of mulch will speed things up.
Faster decomposition will force you to apply a new layer of mulch sooner. But, the decaying process will benefit your soil tremendously.
As those leaves break down, they will improve drainage and aerate the soil. Plus, all of those trace nutrients can return to your plants. It feeds the natural organisms living in the soil and makes the earth more fertile for your next plants.
Continue using leaf mulch to keep your soil in good shape. As the autumn season rolls around, collect the yard debris and use it to your advantage. Your garden will thank you.