Your Most Precious Garden Resource

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Yes, the sky is really this blue and the trees are really this red during fall in the northeastern US.

Fall in Pennsylvania (mid-Atlantic US) is a big picture time of year.  For a good two months, everywhere you go there are gorgeous vistas like the one above as the leaves change color before dropping.  The show is long-lasting because the leaves turn at different times, starting in my garden with the American hornbeam’s golden yellow hue, progressing through the bright red tones of maples and native dogwoods, and ending with the burgundy and orange of hydrangeas and viburnums.

The soil is deep and very fertile in my area, allowing trees to grow to gigantic size.  And after the color show, the leaves fall and create what I consider my most precious garden resource.  Those leaves are what nature supplies for free to protect and improve the soil year after year.  That is why it is so disturbing to see many area residents collecting their leaves and putting them by the side of the road to be removed by their municipality.

Here at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens we use every leaf that falls to improve our soil either by leaving them in the beds or by grinding them and using them as mulch.  A detailed description of our methods can be found in Shade Gardening in Fall: Fall Clean-up.  In addition, up to 18″ of leaves can be ground up and left on the lawn with beneficial results as described in Shade Gardening in Fall: Leaves on the Lawn.  There is a video by the Scott Lawn Care Company in the second post to show to your doubting spouse.

In early October, about 35 Carolyn’s Shade Gardens customers attended two Low Maintenance Gardening Seminars given by my husband Michael during which he demonstrated how to grind leaves for mulch.  For the benefit of my far flung readers  and in the hope of converting more gardeners to this practice, I thought I would show you step-by-step photographs of the process.  Michael is the reluctant star of the do-it-yourself guide below.

Step One:  Gather the leaves from an area where they can’t be left to decompose on their own.  Michael is removing leaves from the pine needle paths on our back hill using a tarp.  All leaves in the beds will remain in place as mulch and eventually compost.

Step Two:  Take the leaves to a level area like your lawn or driveway.  Our driveway is closest to the back hill so Michael took the leaves there for grinding.

As you can see in the photo, we use a standard lawnmower to grind our leaves.  We recommend wearing steel-toed footwear, ear protection (see photo below), and, if appropriate, eye protection when using a lawnmower.

Step Three:  Grind the leaves to the required consistency.  Michael usually goes over them twice, but you can make them as fine or as coarse as you want.

A large amount of leaves becomes a manageable pile after grinding.

Step Four:  Gather your free mulch into a container for easy transportation and application.  Michael is using a township recycling barrel.

Step Five:  Spread the mulch in your garden.  Here Michael uses it around the base of newly planted viburnums.

I hope I have made this process look as easy as it really is.  Once you try it and see the beneficial results for your soil, you too will be a convert.



Nursery Happenings:  Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is done for the fall.  Thanks for a great year.  See you in spring 2013.

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72 Responses to “Your Most Precious Garden Resource”

  1. It’s so good to see someone else advocate the great benefits of mulching fallen leaves. We have not raked or bagged leaves in many years to be left curbside. My husband simply rakes any fallen leaves that are in beds onto our lawn and mows the lawn with our mulching mower. It’s great! Unfortunately, I think we are the only house in our neighborhood that doesn’t put our leaves out for pick-up. What a waste of natural resoucres.

    • Maryann, I find that homeowners are very interested in the idea once they understand how it works. I am hoping my post will enable people to take this route. Perhaps you could refer your neighbors to it. In addition to the sustainability benefits, it is a lot less work than raking and disposing of all your leaves in the fall and then buying and spreading mulch in the spring. Carolyn

  2. susan volk Says:

    Does it matter whether there has been a hard freeze before distributing the shredded leaves in the garden (because of mice, etc. making winter nests in the garden)? Or can we just spread the leaves as we shred them. Thanks!

    • Susan, I clean out and mulch all my beds in the fall rather than the spring because I am too busy then. I just spread the leaves as I shred them and stockpile some to use in spring. I don’t really have a problem with mice. In the natural areas of my garden I leave the leave in place. Carolyn

  3. Carolyn, I love these posts from you! Where my garden is now, we do not have the beauifull fall foliage and I miss it very much, but there are some deciduous trees, and we too use the fallen leaves to the benefit of our potager. My husband is using every single particle of material to produce rich compost and so far he is been really succesful and we are now planting winter vegetables and will use leaves as mulch. Fantastic work using your images really inviting to be more “recycling friendly”, it’s contagious, and fun!

    • Thanks, Lula, if I have made the process seem doable or even fun, then I have succeeded. Spreading ground leaves on your garden beds is like spreading compost because the leaves turn into compost in the beds but you get the added benefit of free mulch for a year before they break down. Like your husband, we also compost leaves, garden debris, and kitchen scraps in a pile to produce actual compost to use when planting plants. Carolyn

  4. I have always dreamed of going up to the north east to view the leaves in fall. Some day I shall see the sights with my own eyes but until then, I must rely on pictures such as yours today! Beautiful. We use a mulching mower for our leaves although most of the leaves fall into the nature areas for us so we dont have many to deal with.

    • Skeeter, Glad you enjoyed the fall color. I think you would really enjoy a visit to my area or to New England during fall foliage season. You sound like you have the relaxed approach that it takes to make fall a low maintenance time of year. Carolyn

  5. The trees in the Poconos reached their peak while I was in England, so I missed out this year. There are plenty of fallen leaves to take care of, however. We use your method, so it’s not too stressful. I do put some of them in large bins to compost and use in the spring. P. x

    • Pam, Down here out of the mountains, we are still enjoying fall color and it will continue for a while. My kousa dogwood is still thoroughly green and the magnolias are just starting to turn yellow. We accumulate a large pile of ground leaves to use in the spring, but there is never enough. Carolyn

  6. This was a great post, I hope everyone will make use of their leaves. something to not forget too, is that petals from flowers also make great mulch and compost – too often these are thought of as useless and they rot down more quickly than leaves. Christina

    • Christina, Cut back flowers usually go into my compost pile so nothing is wasted. The sheer quantity of leaves that come down here can be daunting. The grinding method has the advantage of reducing the volume and making them more useful. Carolyn

  7. Wanda Davis Says:

    I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your emails. They make me stop and “smell the roses” and give thanks for my many blessings. The photography, blogs, responses, etc. are very informative. I keep making my list of plants for the actual trip I will make to your garden “someday”. Thanks for sharing the easy way to grindleaves for mulch. Thanks for all you share. God bless you, Wanda Davis


    • What a nice comment, Wanda. The blog is a lot of work, and most of my comments come from fellow garden bloggers, which I love. But it is always nice to know that nursery customers are reading because the content is meant to be most useful to them. I look forward to your visit in spring 2013! Carolyn

  8. In my garden I let the leaves be where they fall, but then I do tend to do the last lawn mowing of the season pretty late, so that grinds the leaves on the lawn to a size where they break down easily enough. The leaves in the flower beds are just bonus ornaments at a time when the garden otherwise looks a bit shabby…

    • Soren, I don’t mind leaves in the garden in the fall especially as they slowly loose their color. If you don’t live in this part of the world it is hard to imagine the size of the trees and the quantity of the leaves. Letting them stay on my paths and in the front of my more formal beds is not an option. You would need hip waiters to get up the paths. In the woodland, the leaves stay in the garden but the paths still have to be cleared. Carolyn

      • We do have some substantial trees growing in the nearby forest, but my garden used to be fjord meadows just 60 years ago, so our trees are large enough to be considered “mature” but not so large as to produce waist-high covers of leaves. (Also, most of the trees planted in the area when it was turned into plots for holiday homes are birches and firs, which further decreases the number of large leaves; birch leaves are so small that I wouldn’t mind leaving them on the lawn if it wasn’t for the fact that I can put them to better use in my flower beds…)

  9. Hi… I had every intention of doing this with my maple leaves once my grandsons had an opportunity to play in them…this afternoon a large cold front hit and virtually all my fallen maple leaves llterally disappeared… they are probably miles from here by now! I’m curious Carolyn… what do you do about the really large magnolia leaves that I have in almost all my beds… they tend not to break down much by spring so I’ve always removed them, ‘chewed’ them up and returned them to the beds… this is a lot of work. Do you feel most spring things such as trilliums, minor bulbs, tiarellas, shade garden phloxes, etc can find their way through the matted leaves of magnolias? Life would surely be easier if I could let them lay where they land!! Larry

    • Larry, Maybe your leaves are in my yard because a lot swirled in last night. My really big magnolia trees are either stand alone in the lawn or in areas where it doesn’t matter if the leaves stay. Shading my woodland, I do have huge London plane trees with gigantic leaves that don’t break down quickly. For the reasons you mentioned, I used to clean out all the beds, and it was a tremendous amount of work. A few years ago I cut back to just cleaning out the edges. However, over the last couple of years, I haven’t cleaned them out at all and all those seemingly delicate woodland plants shoot right up through the leaves. Maybe you should experiment with leaving the leaves in some beds and see what happens. Carolyn

  10. I too mulch leaves with the mower. It really is a simple process and they compost through the winter. I still have not gotten out to photograph the Niagara Gorge leaves but they are beautiful in PA. Many are falling here so I am sure to miss it.

  11. Fabulous Carolyn. We also use every leaf here. We mow the untreated lawn and leaves together and mulch veg beds and other areas. We leave the leaves all over the beds around the gardens and they decompose by mid summer…and the insects and critters are ecstatic right now to see the leaves sitting on the ground once again.

  12. Good idea! All the leaves that land on my garden beds stay in place until spring–they’re a great mulch! We live in an Oak forest, so there are way too many Oak leaves to grind and mulch them all. We use giant tarps to carry most of them into the woods (or they blow there–yay!) to decompose naturally. But I could see using this technique for two or three out of the 50+ giant piles we usually rake each fall. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. 😉

  13. I was amazed how much the pile was reduced! Not having a lot of trees around here except for pines, I use pine straw as mulch. Guess it’s the same concept. Also, having mostly pines around here, I am amazed at the beautiful color on your trees. Just gorgeous!

  14. I wouldn’t have believed it if you didn’t show it! I have a problem with running over leaves as they fly everywhere. What keeps them in place for Michael? I usually toss mine in a shredder/chipper or stack them in a fenced area. Leaves are great. The lawn mower really took them down to a manageable size.

  15. Great step by step guide. We don’t get enough leaves to have a thick layer so we leave them right on the grass and mow right over them. Wish we had more as I would love a little free mulch.

  16. The tree in your second photo is magnificent! I am always puzzled by folks who go to a lot of work to rake up their leaves, only to dispose of them. All that work for nothing! Then often they go to the big box store and pay money to buy bagged mulch!

    • Deb, Exactly, all the work and fossil fuels to remove the leaves, and then all the work, fossil fuels, and money to bring in a replacement. Lawnmowers are not the most PC machine, but you don’t have to run them for very long to complete the grinding. Carolyn

  17. Leaves are pure gold to me! When I first moved here 9 years ago I would go to friends houses and ask them for their leaves. It seemed ridiculous that they were throwing them away. My hard clay soil needed all the leaves I could feed it. When I lived in upstate NY I would mow my neighbors leaves and dump them in my garden. They were glad to get rid of them and I was thrilled to have them in my garden beds. Great post!

  18. Carolyn, we seem to have a different take on the leaf mulch in the UK. We just bag up the leaves, puncture the plastic bags in a few places and leave nature to rot the leaves down, and then we have a great leaf mould which we use for mulching. Mind you last time I did this it was three years before being ready to use, think I will shred them next time as you suggest.

    • Alistair, There is a difference between what I am recommending and what you describe. Leaves ground in the fall provide great mulch which will keep down weeds during the following spring and summer, which is what I use mulch for. By next fall the leaves will have broken down to compost or humus, which enriches the soil, but doesn’t make very good mulch because weeds love to grow in it. The bag method you describe sounds like it produces compost, which is great if you want to use it for planting. Carolyn

  19. Carolyn, hi I am sorry to have been away from your delicious blog for so long. Your photos of trees in full fall livery make me long for that wonderful cold snap we used to enjoy when we lived in Massachusetts, with vibrant leaf colour and blue, blue skies just as your photos show. Now, almost November, in Delhi it’s still high 80s and the leaves do not fall until Spring… Your tips are excellent as ever – in the UK I think most people compost their leaves separately and then put them back on the garden in Spring, which seems much more work, while in Massachusetts everyone seemed to use ***** leafblowers to remove falling leaves, as if they were somehow unnatural and a nuisance to the gardener!

    • Jill, I have missed your insightful comments. Yes, all over the US the dreaded leaf blower seems to be the machine of choice for dealing with leaves, mostly because people want to get rid of them. Leaving leaves in the beds is the easiest, but even I think that whole leaves look messy in the front of formal beds. Ground leaves provide a very elegant mulched look though. Luckily not many of my beds are formal so most leaves stay in place. Carolyn

  20. Hello Carolyn, Thanks for the post. I’ve collected leaves for years, but your tip of running over a big pile a couple of times to reduce volume, and overall chunk size is brilliant. On a rare dry day this week I had great fun collecting them with our little Li-ion powered mower, which coped well. I couldn’t quite make it out from the pics, but it seems that with our mower, leaving the clippings collector off seems to give a smaller particle. Also thanks to Michael for doing the work, and demonstrating the technique. I’m wondering if leaf collecting and mulching is something us chaps relish, particulary if a machine is involved? This simple tip is one of the best I’ve gleaned all year, so many thanks, Best wishes Julian

    • Julian, So glad my tip was appreciated even in remote parts of Wales. Our mower does not have a bag to collect the clippings so I am not sure what effect that has. In my experience at the nursery, men are more likely to be more interested in leaves, lawns, and machines. I have a sign that says “Danger Men Gardening”. I will stop there before I get in trouble. Carolyn

  21. I might make a small suggestion – that is probably common sense to most people! I mowed a bunch of leaves once – using my non electric or gas mower. I didn’t have time to gather them up at the time! Big mistake! When I returned to follow through – wind had removed ALL. So if you don’t have time to follow through right away – don’t mulch them up OR make time to gather them then and there!.

  22. Carolyn. We tried the leaf mulching trick and it worked.! Took two hours to do the yard, no bags, and several of my beds are nicely mulched! I also have a snow drop blooming, for real. Gorgeous.

  23. I was just up in the Boston area – the Northeast is just amazing in the fall with the vivid colors of the leaves! I usually just mow over the leaves in the lawn, but I rake out a lot of the piles in the beds since we get such huge piles of leaves (though this is before they recently took down a bunch of trees in the neighboring lot.) I love the idea of putting the pile in the driveway to mow and then redistribute amongst the beds! So simple and useful.

  24. Carolyn, thanks for the tutorial. I was out this weekend raking the large shade bed of wet leaves. In the process I landed up with a tick on me, hopefully I got it in time. This tree’s leaves tend to lay flat and mat down. I left them one year and was concerned the following spring that newly emerging hosta etc would be more slug prone so raked them out. Doens’t this breed problems around the base of the plants? Although mine don’t go curbside, they get put in the back of the property at the woodland edge. Can you mow wet leaves?

    • Terry, You can mow wet leaves, but if they are too wet they get stuck in the mower. In fact, if the leaves are too dry, Michael will hose them down to keep them from flying around and keep the dust to a minimum. I am glad you mentioned ticks. Ticks do live in leaves so it is important to protect yourself against them when raking, etc. I don’t have problems from insects or rodents living in the leaves. It really isn’t any different than any other mulch except for being free and more sustainable. Carolyn

  25. I am fortunate enough that most of my leaves are from willow oak, so they are small enough to use as is. I put them under shrubs for mulch and avoid having to bag them all up for the city to take away. However, I don’t rake the first leaf until they are all off of the tree. My neighbors must hate me, but I am only raking once.

    • Les, Willow oak leaves would make nice even mulch. I would love to wait until all the leaves are down but we wouldn’t be able to get in our driveway or walk on our paths. We have to collect the leaves on the drive a couple of times a week. Carolyn

  26. Carolyn – I think you & Michael need to come to the UK to spread the word. I’ve always been told that it’s bad to allow wet leaves to sit on the lawn, I guess it’s different if they’re mulched.

    • Bag, We are available to come make converts in the UK. Whole wet leaves, especially if they are big, can create dead spots in the lawn if matted down and left in place. After you have run over leaves with the lawn mower, the pieces are small enough that they break down and enrich the lawn. Carolyn

  27. I am tweeting this story bec. it is something more people need to do!

  28. Your fall trees are really something, reminds me of Eastern Canada. We tend to have more pines and our piles of neddles in the fall are just as large. They make a good mulch for outer areas.

  29. I always let the fall leaves remain to protect my perennials and to mulch my beds, but I rake the leaves off the lawn. I take the raked leaves and add them to the beds that are not under trees. I have never chopped them up with a lawn mower however. I am sure it speeds their breakdown. We just have a manual push mower, but I am sure this method would work just the same.

  30. Hi Carolyn,

    wonderful post! I do miss those Pennsylvania autumns, and your beautiful pictures make me nostalgic.

  31. I really wish we had more deciduous trees here. Our big leaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) are the only real deciduous trees on the property (other than our fruit trees). They do get composted though, and I’m a big fan of nature’s free mulch. Fortunately our goats and chickens make up for the lack of leaves, but still. It always seems a bit silly to me when I see people discard the leaves, or burn them, and then spend $10 a bag on ‘store bought’ mulch! I hope many others will follow your lead, it really is a very valuable resource!

    • Clare, My gardens would be very different without this valuable resource, although sometimes the amount of leaves waiting to be processed can be overwhelming, especially after a storm like Sandy. The sycamore leaves start coming down in August and leaf clean up continues into December. It is a long process. Carolyn

  32. Beautiful trees, I am jealous! We have a pine in our yard that must come down (it is much too close to the foundation and leaning terribly) I am debating what tree to replace it with but you can bet it will be one that gives me leaves. We lived in Michigan for 20 years with maples dotting the area, wonderful mulch for the gardens. For now I borrow the neighbors leaves, he doesn’t want them back!

  33. I need to share this post with many people in my neck of the woods. People burn leaves or bag leaves.

  34. Can you use a hand mower for this? Since we don’t have a lawn, we don’t own a power mower, but I do have a hand mower I’m not currently using. I guess I’ll let most of my leaves stay where they fell, but I do want to clear my garden paths.

  35. […] me started on blogging last year. The simple inching forward idea for me in her most recent post, (Your Most Precious Garden Resource)  clearly presented with a few well chosen images, was not just to collect the leaves as an […]

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