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 reuse the leaves in mulches and compost. 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.
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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. Bagging mowers make this method of mulching more convenient because they collect the shredded leaves. This still doesn't result in perfectly mulched leaves, but they will be shredded enough to use in the garden or in compost.
A DIY Mulcher
Self-propelled walk-behind rotary mowers can be converted into homemade leaf shredders. A basic design is made by cutting a hole in the front of the deck and attaching 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 still runs. To use the mulcher, all you do is start the mower engine and feed leaves into the hopper. Be careful not to put your hands into the hopper or under 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 up leaves can then be placed directly on the garden, or composed before spreading.
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 used to make leaf mold 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.
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Don’t Bag It –- Leaf Management Plan
- University of Minnesota Extension: Options for Disposing of Leaves
- Mother Earth News: Build a Compost Shredder Chipper
- Mother Earth News: Make a Homemade Mini-Mulcher
- North Carolina Cooperative Extension: Eco-friendly Tip - Use Fallen Leaves To Create Mulch