Can I leave leaves in my garden bed?

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By usawebstories

I would like to save time removing leaves from my garden and am wondering if leaving the leaves in my garden beds will be OK for my plants.

— Yvette Borsin, Lincolnwood

For many gardeners, the normal fall routine is to remove all the leaves from the garden and either bag them up or pile them at the curb for transportation to a landscape waste facility to turn them into compost. I have left leaves in my home garden beds for more than 15 years with good results, saving lots of cleanup time and helping the environment. This also saves money and time as I do not purchase mulch for my garden beds. The only exception is for fall plantings, which I mulch to help the plants get through the first winter. In addition, I do not cut back perennials in fall but wait until spring to cut them back to about 6 inches above the ground. The fall leaves create a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and improves the soil with organic matter as they decompose. The perennial foliage and fallen leaves in the beds create a natural look with lots of winter interest. It also creates a habitat for insects and wildlife. We all need to do more to support pollinators and can do so by leaving perennial foliage up for the winter and allowing leaves to stay in beds year-round. Cutting perennials back late in spring at 6 to 8 inches above the ground creates the maximum benefit for insects.

On occasion, leaves may pile up too deeply in borders or get blown into deep piles that need to be reduced to avoid smothering perennials and bulbs. Excess leaves can be piled up in a corner to decompose, creating compost to use for future soil improvement. Removing leaves from the edges of your garden beds will give you a clean boundary between the lawn and garden beds, adding some order to the garden’s appearance. You do not need to grind them up to use as mulch — simply let them fall and blow into the beds naturally.

Use a mulching mower to mulch the leaves and grass clippings from your lawn to save time while returning nutrients back to the lawn. Change the direction of mowing each time you mow. You should be able to easily see the blades of grass after you are finished mowing for the season. A thick layer of leaves covering the grass may smother the lawn if left on it over the winter. A medium to dense layer of leaves can damage areas of the lawn that have been seeded earlier this fall and are just getting established. Rake or blow some of the leaves off the new grass carefully if the ground is too soft to push a mower. If the mower leaves ruts as you are mowing, the area should not be mowed.

For more plant advice, contact the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden at Tim Johnson is senior director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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