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Don't bag your leaves and leave them at the curb. Leaves make a great (and free) mulch for your garden.

“Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold.” – Robert Frost

This poem comes to my mind every year around this time as the leaves are beginning to change colors and be shed for the year. For a full year, these trees have worked diligently, pulling nutrients from deep in the soil to develop the current year’s foliage. But all too often, gardeners and homeowners will rake their lawns, only to bag up the leaves and put them by the side of the road.

These bags of brown gold are then put into a landfill, where yard trimmings and other compost materials, such as food waste, comprise 28 percent of the refuse in U.S. landfills. This is an alarming amount of what otherwise could have been composted.

Using fallen leaves in the garden is one of the easiest, cheapest and most eco-friendly things gardeners can do. Leaves make an excellent and free mulch.

Leaves can be gathered by raking, blowing or using a lawnmower with a bag attachment, which is a great way to chop and shred the leaves, as well as create a more uniform mulch. That would give your garden a neater and tidier appearance. Put the leaves in beds around trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables.

Layer leaves about 2 to 3 inches thick to help control weeds. If you prefer the look of store-bought mulches, consider using a base layer of fallen leaves, then topping it with your favorite purchased mulch.

Over time, the leaves will break down, which they tend to do rather quickly, and provide your plant with nutrients or fertilizers while helping to improve the quality of the soil beneath. You can add 2 to 3 inches more leaves each season.

Now is the time when many of deciduous trees begin to lose their leaves, but in early spring, the live oaks begin to lose theirs, giving rise to another wave of free mulch.

If you compost or would like to start, these leaves will make a great addition to the bin. Compost is used primarily in bed preparation to improve the soil. Collecting leaves and adding them to your compost bin will greatly increase the amount of compost you can create, cutting down on garden costs as well as increasing the health of your garden plants.

Whether you use the fallen leaves to mulch or add to the compost bin, eventually the benefits will make it to the plants. Keeping these leaves will help save on mulch, compost, landfill space and fertilizers. It’s almost as if money actually does grow on trees.

Got a question?

Email gardennews@agcenter.lsu.edu.