Mulching is an earth-friendly alternative to bagging fallen leaves and dumping them in a landfill. Leaves contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients collected by trees during the growing season, so it makes sense to use a leaf shredder and reuse the leaves in mulches and compost. Chopping or shredding the leaves before use helps them break down and release nutrients into the soil more quickly. This can be done with specialized leaf mulching equipment, or you can turn to DIY alternatives.
Mowing and Mulching
A lawn mower can be used as a simple leaf mulcher with a few minor adjustments. By itself, a lawn mower will chop leaves up and partially shred them. You can improve this by replacing the regular cutting blade with a mulching blade or if it's time to replace the old mower, purchase a mulching mower.
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Mowers equipped with a grass catcher make this method of mulching more convenient because they collect the shredded leaves and grass clippings as you mow. This still doesn't result in perfectly mulched leaves, but they will be shredded enough to use in the garden or in compost.
DIY Leaf Shredder
An old gas-powered, walk-behind rotary mower can be converted into a homemade leaf shredder machine. Modify the mower by removing the wheels and securing to a solid base. Cut a hole in the top front of the deck and attach a hopper made out of sheet metal to act as a feed shoot for the leaves. This design will void a mower's warranty and make it useless for lawn mowing, so use an old mower that is still operable but might be too heavy or awkward to use for mowing the grass.
To use your homemade mulcher, start the mower engine and feed leaves into the hopper. Keep children and pets away from the equipment while you're shredding the leaves. Put on gloves and safety glasses before you begin and use caution when loading the hopper. Keep your hands, feet and face away from the hopper and the underside of the deck while the engine is running.
Shredding by Hand
Mulching leaves is more complicated without using power equipment, but it is still possible. The key is breaking leaves up into small pieces so they will compost quickly and turn into leaf mold, which is the partially decomposed leaf material naturally found on forest floors. Leaves can be cut by hand using garden shears, or extremely dry leaves can be broken up by placing them in a bag and stomping on them. The chopped or crushed leaves can then be placed directly on the soil or composed before spreading over the garden bed.
Cold Composting Shredded Leaves
To compost chopped leaves and make a leaf mold mulch, place shredded leaves in black plastic trash bags. Moisten leaves with a garden hose, seal the bags, and poke a few holes for air circulation. Unlike traditional composting methods, "cold" composting does not combine several ingredients or heat up during decomposition.
It will take about six months for the leaves to decompose into a soft mulch, so leaves from the fall will be ready to use on the garden the following spring. The finished mulch will be soft and crumbly with an earthy smell.