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I got home on the day after Halloween from a two-week trip, and all I wanted to do was get outside and start working with all my fallen leaves. I have lots of them, and half-expected to find our house buried up to the windowsills.

On my drive back into town, I saw loads of leaves, bagged and sitting on curbs, sadly awaiting pickup as garbage. I’m always tempted to throw them in the car and bring them home. That’s because I’ve learned that leaves are one of nature’ greatest gifts. I admit that I once placed a high value on tidiness, and meticulously scooped up every leaf that fell in my garden. I was spending huge amounts of time wasting an essential resource that soil can use to renew itself.

That doesn’t mean that leaves should always be left where they fall. For safety, leaves should be removed early and often from surfaces on which people walk. But if you don’t bag them, what do you do with them? There are ways to make fall leaf cleanup easier on you and better for your garden and the environment.

Let the leaves remain where they drop under shrubs and bushes. You’ll be pleasantly surprised that they’ll be broken down come spring.

Dealing with leaves that fall over groundcovers can be a major pain. I have large beds of pachysandra, vinca and English ivy, and raking creates a tangled mess of uprooted stems and torn leaves. I’ve learned to use these leaves as mulch instead of trying to remove them. Just grab a broom and move it gently back and forth over the groundcover. The leaves will slip in between the plants. They’ll provide insulation from temperature fluctuations this winter and add nutrients to the soil when they eventually decompose next spring. You may have to do this frequently if you have lots of leaves, but it’s still better than raking.

A layer of leaves can extend the season in your herb garden for weeks to come. What could be better than fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano and marjoram for winter recipes? Bury the plants in a layer of leaves, and mark the location. To harvest, push the mulch aside and cut what you need. Washed well, the herbs are ready to use.

Don’t mulch most other perennials until a hard frost has sent plants into dormancy and the soil has absorbed fall rainfall and has started to freeze. The goal of mulching is not to keep plants warm, but to keep them cold. Warm, sunny days in January or February can lure plants into breaking dormancy, only to be nailed when temperatures return to normal lows.

Use up to 6 inches of shredded leaves, since whole leaves can form a mat that water can’t penetrate. As worms and soil microorganisms break the leaves down, nutrients that trees have drawn from deep in the earth are added to the soil, and its texture is improved over time.

It took me two days, but all 100 of my dahlia tubers are dug and stored. The most amazing thing about the whole process is that my mulching mower shredded a mountain of slimy dahlia foliage in minutes. Dahlias are the demanding divas of my gardening world, requiring staking, pruning, irrigating, fertilizing and dividing. Somehow, shredding their remains and using it as mulch justifies some of that effort.

I stacked the dead foliage in piles about 6 inches deep. With the mower deck raised as high as it goes and the bag attachment in place, I mowed the piles into smithereens. All that mess condensed into 8 bags of shreds, which I emptied over the dahlia bed, about 12 inches thick. As leaves from my deciduous trees continue to fall, I’ll shred them and spread them over the bed.

My husband’s woodshop produces buckets and buckets of wood shavings each week, and I’ll add those, along with kitchen waste, to the mix. The glorious mess will settle but stay in place all winter long, protecting the soil. In the spring, I’ll simply move what’s left of the litter aside and plant tubers once again. By June, the mulch will be decomposed and I’ll be on the prowl for more. Since I’ve been using this technique, this huge dahlia bed requires NO WEEDING.

You can cut back perennials the same way. Raise the mower deck enough to prevent damage to the plants’ crowns, and just mow. A huge volume of dead plant material can be reduced to just a few handfuls. If you’re working in a small area, cut the perennials down, place the material on your lawn, and mow over it. Voila! Instant mulch, and less work for you.

Carol Barany and her husband, John, found paradise on 1 1/3 acres just west of Franklin Park, where they raised three children and became Master Gardeners. Contact her at