Can you put too many leaves in garden soil? ( Find the perfect balance )

  • By: composthq
  • Date: February 6, 2022
  • Time to read: 11 min.

Introduction

Gardening is all about finding the right balances, and if you are looking to improve the soil in your garden, you have probably heard about adding leaves to it – but you may not know how many to add, or how to dig them in. We are going to find out today.

Leaves are a very valuable source of nutrients and you shouldn’t waste them by letting them rot on your lawn, or throwing them into landfill sites. However, you might be wondering how many leaves you should add to your garden, and whether it’s possible to go too far with this technique.

We’re going to explore this today so that you know the answer to “can you put too many leaves in garden soil? (find the perfect balance )

person in the garden with a wheelbarrow full of hedge trimmings

How Many Leaves Can You Add To Your Soil?

You can really add as many leaves as you want to your soil, especially if you shred them first. They will, given enough time, simply rot down and turn into rich soil, which is great for your garden, great for the insect life, and great for the plants.

Few people enjoy raking leaves, but many gardeners consider these an exceptionally valuable resource, and once you have put the effort into gathering them up, you may as well find a way to use them that benefits you and your garden.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do. A lot of people add leaves to their compost bin, but it then takes time for them to break down, and they have to be turned regularly to mix them with the rest of your compost.

Instead, you may want to try using them as mulch, or even just letting them lie in a thin layer on your lawn.

Although a thick layer of leaves will kill the grass, a thin layer should break down, feeding the microorganisms and increasing the nutrient levels in the soil. This will strengthen the grass as time passes.

Similarly, leaves that you collect up can be added to the tops of flower beds, although you need to be careful not to cover up the plants, or they may die from lack of light. Never put on a layer so thick that the plants can’t keep growing.

What Happens If You Add Too Many Leaves?

As mentioned above, you can’t really add “too many” leaves, but you can cause problems with imbalances in your soil.

Leaves that have just fallen from a tree have not decomposed; they will break down once they are on the soil, as microorganisms and worms start to devour them and turn them back into organic matter.

This process will absorb a lot of nitrogen from the surrounding soil, and this can cause problems in the garden.

The microbes that break the leaves back down into rich soil are fueled by nitrogen, and they will take this in very fast when they are active – as they are likely to be when fed on a rich diet of leaves.

The problem with them absorbing all this nitrogen is that it can leave nearby plants unable to access enough nitrogen, because it has all been pulled in by the microbes.

This can lead to deficiencies, which causes yellow leaves and thin, weak growth. It can affect any plants, but obviously, it will be particularly detrimental to nitrogen loving varieties.

If you notice that plants are turning yellow or are not growing properly around the area where you have added leaves, it’s probably due to a nitrogen deficiency.

The more leaves you add, the worse this problem will become, until they have broken down and the bacteria have dispersed.

However, you can fix this quite easily and restore a balance to your garden. All you have to do is add some nitrogen when you put the leaves down, mixing the fertilizer in with the leaves when you spread them.

This will boost the amount of available nitrogen in the soil and help to replace what the microbes will absorb as they break down the leaves.

How much nitrogen fertilizer you need to add will depend on the amount of leaves you spread, but remember that it’s better to add too little than too much.

You can always top the dose up later, but excess nitrogen won’t restore the balance or leave you with happy plants!

As long as you add nitrogen to rebalance the levels in the soil, you can really put as many leaves as you want on your garden.

Some people even have local gardeners drop off shredded leaves from other gardens – which should give you an idea of how valuable this resource is!

What Can You Make With Leaves?

There are three different products you can make using the leaves from your garden: mold, mulch, and compost.

All can help your garden and should not upset the balance if they are broken down before being added, or if you include a nitrogen fertilizer when you put the leaves on the garden.

When you collect up your leaves, decide whether you are going to turn them into compost, mold, or mulch. Compost is suitable for planting in, while the other two can be used as soil improvers.

decomposing compost in a wooden bin

Compost

Leaves count as a “brown” ingredient in composting. They are dry, crumbly, and brilliant for aerating a compost heap.

You can toss large amounts of leaves on the pile, and as long as they get wet and have some nitrogen-rich greens to interact with, they will soon turn into rich, soft compost.

When this has finished, you can add it to your garden without any worries about nitrogen, because it will have become inactive and won’t absorb nitrogen from the surrounding area.

You can shred leaves prior to composting them, or just compost, depending on which seems easiest and most effective to you.

Leaf Mold

This is a common technique for turning leaves into something useful, especially if the structure of your soil is poor. You don’t really need to do anything much to create leaf mold, except move the leaves to the area where you want the mold to form.

Leaf mold doesn’t usually need nitrogen to be added to it, but be aware that if you create it in large quantities, it may rob surrounding plants of their nutrients. It’s best to be careful about making leaf mold.

Once the mold has started to work, you can just dig it into the soil using a garden fork, or leave it on top – the nutrients should wash down with the rain, improving the soil below.

Leaf Mulch

Mulch is another option for leaves. You create this by gathering up lots of leaves and then layering them very thickly around plants. You want several inches to create a proper mulch, and this can then be left.

Over time, the leaves will start to rot down, feeding the plants. In the meantime, you are likely to enjoy benefits like insulation (good for cold-sensitive plants) and weed suppression – and we’ll talk about both of those in more detail in the next section.

What Are The Benefits Of Adding Leaves?

So, how do leaves help and why should you add them to your garden?

There are a lot of benefits, and remember, leaves are part of nature’s way of putting goodness back into the soil.

While you may not always want to allow leaves to stay exactly where they fall, it’s a great idea to let their nutrients be returned to your garden’s ecosystem if you can!

Benefit One) Soil Enrichment

Leaves are an extremely valuable source of nutrients, and allowing them to break down in your garden releases the nutrients straight back into the soil, making them available to plants and microorganisms again.

You probably already know about the impact that adding organic matter can have, especially if you operate a compost heap or you buy compost for your garden occasionally. Leaves are another great way to give your garden a boost, and they are totally free!

Although the value will vary from tree to tree, most leaves contain more minerals than manure does, and they also make a big difference to how well your soil drains, ensuring plants don’t drown.

Furthermore, their robustness increases the aeration of the soil when they are dug into it, bringing it structure and breaking up compaction. This helps plants to get their roots in deep and ensures that they get enough airflow around those roots.

All in all, adding leaves to your soil is very beneficial for both its value and its structure, and it’s well worth doing this if you’re struggling with heavy clay soil!

Benefit Two) Warmth

Many people use leaves as a mulch in the winter, and you may find this useful, especially if you have plants that are sensitive to cold weather. Things like roses and garlic will benefit from a good five to six inches of shredded leaves around them.

Make sure, however, that you don’t cover the plants up or they may not grow properly because they won’t have enough light.

It is usually best to wait until the first frosts before you add this layer of leaves, because then the plants will turn dormant as they should do.

The leaves will create bubbles of air, trapping warmth beneath them and keeping the plants’ roots from freezing.

Benefit Three) Weed Suppression

Where you spread leaves thickly, weeds cannot grow, because the sunlight will be blocked. This will keep the soil clear of unwanted plants, and unlike many weed suppressors, leaves will eventually rot down and disappear, not harming the ecosystem in the slightest.

colourful calendar showing the months of the year

Should You Add Leaves At Certain Times Of The Year?

You are most likely to have access to leaves in the winter, and you can use them as a mulch at this point very easily. All you have to do is rake them up and spread them around.

However, if you want to add leaves to your garden at other times of the year, it can be a little trickier. If you just leave them lying on the ground, they will have leached out all their nutrients before you put them where you want them to benefit the soil.

You will have to gather them up and store them. You can tip them into plastic bags or reusable plastic bins, and this should prevent the nutrients from being lost.

When you are ready, simply tip the bins out and dig the leaves into the soil, or mulch them on the top.

The leaves will slowly decompose, enriching the ground where you have put them and feeding the plants.

No matter what time of year you add the leaves, it will take a while for them to disappear and turn back into soil, so be aware of that if you are worried about unsightly leaves on your flowerbeds.

Why Should You Add Leaves To Your Garden?

As well as the benefits listed above, there are a few other good reasons to add the leaves to your garden, rather than tossing them into your general waste bin.

Benefit One) Saving Landfill Space

A bag of leaves might not seem like a lot to add to a landfill, but when every household has two or three bags every year, it can add up extraordinarily fast. It is thought that around eight million tonnes went into landfill sites in the year 2005 in the USA alone.

Landfill sites are already struggling to keep up with the amount of waste being produced, and adding things like leaves is not a good idea, especially when they can be left to decompose naturally.

By using the leaves in your garden instead, you are saving space in landfill sites, as well as cutting down on the plastic bags needed to hold the leaves, and the fuel needed to transport them to the landfill.

This is definitely an option that’s worth taking! Fortunately, it is thought that the quantity of leaves in landfill sites has gone down because many more people are using their leaves themselves.

Benefit Two) Methane Reduction

As well as being bad for the planet in terms of taking up space in landfill sites, did you know that organic waste really isn’t good in the conditions created by a landfill?

It might seem like leaves should soon harmlessly disappear whether they are in your garden or in a landfill, but that isn’t the case.

There is very little oxygen in landfill sites, which means that the bacteria that usually break down organic matter cannot survive. The matter will still decompose, but this will happen anaerobically, which is not nearly as good for the planet.

Anaerobic bacteria produce methane, and this contributes to global warming – meaning that an innocent bag of leaves in a landfill is actually causing pollution problems for our planet.

If, instead, you spread those leaves in your garden, you are helping the ecosystem, the plants, and the planet!

Benefit Three) It Saves Money

Compost costs money. Your garden needs compost adding to it to ensure that the balance of nutrients is maintained, and key minerals are available, but every time you go to a garden center and come home with a bag of compost, you are spending money.

Using your leaves to add nutrients to your garden soil therefore saves money. You may still need to add compost to the ground at times, but you might find that you need significantly less than you would otherwise do.

You can also add dry leaves to your compost bin, if you would rather not use them directly in the garden.

This will also ensure that the nutrients are maintained, and it will give you a larger amount of compost available for use on the garden. All in all, this is a great way to reduce your garden center bill, or leave more money for new plants!

several decomposing leaves on the ground

How Fast Do Leaves Decompose?

In general, leaves can take between six and twelve months to totally decompose.

The time will depend heavily on the kind of tree that the leaves come from and the conditions that they are breaking down in, but it shouldn’t take longer than twelve months in normal circumstances.

If you have put a particularly thick layer of leaves somewhere in your garden, bear in mind that it may take longer for them to decompose. It will happen eventually, however!

Should You Shred Your Leaves?

Many people will tell you to shred your leaves before composting them. You can do this, and it will help them to break down more quickly, but it isn’t essential. You can just toss them in whole!

They will break down just fine, whether you are using them as compost, mulch, or mold.

Summary

You can’t really put too many leaves in the garden soil, as long as you use a nitrogen fertilizer to top up the nitrogen in the ground. This will maintain the balance and ensure that both plants and microorganisms have access to everything that they need!

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