7 Ways To Reuse and Repurpose Dry Leaves

Instead of tossing them, turn dry leaves into free fertilizer, mulch, bird refuges and more.

In the forest, trees absorb more than half of their nutrients from fallen leaves. But trees in town often miss out on that. So rather than throw away all of that free fertilizer and mulch, here are some ways to repurpose your yard full of dry leaves.

Not only will you save time on raking and money on yard care materials, you’ll make a dent in the eight million tons of fallen leaves that end up in landfills every fall.

“It’s doing a good thing for nature,” says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. “Typical ways of getting rid of them — mowing them, leaf blowing them, bagging them and sending them to the landfill — have layers and layers of badness when it comes to the health of the planet.”

The good news? Dry leaves are especially useful. Here are some ways to reuse dry leaves.

Shred Dry Leaves With the Lawn Mower

Shred leaves with a mower, then spread them across your lawn to give it a boost of nutrient health when spring comes around. Keep the layer thin enough to see the grass so sunlight can still get through.

“It is good to leave mulched leaves on the ground, but leaving piles of leaves on the ground over winter can be bad for your lawn,” says Tammy Sons, owner of Tennessee Wholesale Nursery. “Too many leaves can smother the lawn and the leaves won’t break down, leaving you with a mess after winter.”

Bonus nature points for using a push mower. Either way, wait until the leaves are dry. Wet leaves are too slippery and heavy to easily distribute and may clog the mower.

Rake Dry Leaves Around Trees and Shrubs

Leaves will help regulate the moisture and temperature of the soil, acting as fertilizer as they break down. Make piles three to six inches high. If they’re not on the grass, simply leave them where they’ve fallen.

“That leaf layer is actually critically important,” says Mizejewski. “The plants lose their leaves, which fall to the root zone of those plants, where they break down and return nutrients to the tree.”

Leave the Leaves for Wildlife

Ecologically, it’s best to leave the leaves whole where they fall, or in piles around the yard.

That leaf layer is an ecosystem critical for all sorts of wildlife, including birds, chipmunks, wood frogs, shrews, salamanders and especially moth caterpillars and other insects. Ninety-four percent of moth species need a leaf layer for their life cycle. And 96 percent of backyard birds rely on moth caterpillars as their primary source for feeding their chicks during nesting season.

“Some animals live their entire life in that leaf litter,” says Mizejewski. “People tend not to care about bugs, but when you know that those insects and spiders are a really important piece of the food web, critically important for those birds you want to attract, it can change your thinking. If you want to see a lot of beautiful birds in your yard, you have to create a space that invites insects.”

Add Dry Leaves to the Garden

Mix whole or shredded leaves into the soil, where they will disintegrate, release nutrients and make habitat for earthworms and other invertebrates. Or use them on top of garden beds to protect roots and suppress weeds.

Shredded leaves are better for this because whole ones create a solid mat. If you live in a windy area, shredded leaves are less likely to blow away.

Pro tip: Use leaves in potted plants, too.

Turn Dry Leaves Into Soil

Add leftover leaves to the compost bin. Alternate layers of grass clippings, food leftovers and dead leaves, and stir them every now and then to help them break down. Shredded leaves will compost faster.

If you have too many leaves for your compost pile, keep them dry in trash cans until the spring, when there are more wet green materials to mix them with. If you can’t compost in your yard, your city might have a place where you can compost your leaves.

Make Leaves Into Leaf Mold

Similar to compost but darker and more crumbly, leaf mold happens when the leaves decompose on their own. It’s what makes forests smell so earthy. Leaf mold improves soil structure and helps it retain more water. Make a big pile of leaves and let it do its thing for six months to a year. If it dries out, add water periodically.

While leaf mold is generally considered safe to handle, it can aggravate allergies in some people. If you’re concerned, wear a mask.

Show Off Artistic Skills with Dry Leaves

Revel in the feeling of fall by creating seasonal leaf decor and maybe a scarecrow. Try leaf nature journaling, or leaf rubbing art. The latter entails putting dried leaves under paper, then shading over them with colored pencils. Or make a scrapbook or photo album.

To preserve leaves, place them between two sheets of wax paper, then put a heavy book on top for a couple of weeks until they dry. Put a towel over the wax paper and briefly iron it.

And don’t forget to let everyone, including the dogs, jump in the leaf piles!

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.