It's easy to transform fallen leaves into mulch. Our garden experts show you how.
Steve Bender

It's lucky Moses and the Israelites didn't own houses in the suburbs. Why? Because when manna fell from heaven, they'd probably take a cue from their neighbors and rake it to the curb.

To a gardener, December's fallen leaves and pine needles are just like manna. Each leaf and needle contains a larder of organic matter--absolutely the best material for loosening clay or improving the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of sand. Organic matter feeds legions of plants, earthworms, and micro-organisms. Yet what do most of us do with this treasure? Rake it to the street for the city to take away.

Not me. Maybe it's because I think that landfills are for unrecyclables, such as rusted washing machines or albums by Air Supply. Or maybe it's because I'm cheap and can't stand the thought of buying sphagnum peat moss and ground bark when all this free organic matter is falling down around me.

In any case, I don't rake leaves into the street. Instead, I rake them into long, shallow rows about 6 inches deep. Then I set my lawnmower on its highest setting and run over the pile, making enough passes to completely chop it up.

I like to use a mulching mower, because it's designed to chop leaves into little pieces, but you can use a regular bagging mower--just take off the bag. The first time you run over the leaves, you'll invariably miss some which won't be chopped. So rake them all into a pile again, and run over them once more. You'll be amazed at how small that big pile of leaves becomes.

Carefully gather that finely shredded material--it's garden gold. Take it to your flowerbed, shrub border, or vegetable garden, and spread a 2-inch-thick layer over the soil surface and around any existing plants. The shredded leaves make excellent, attractive mulch--they stay in place and don't wash or blow away. Even more important, as the leaves slowly decompose, they add vital organic matter to the soil, improving its ability to support abundant life. Do this every fall, and before long, you'll have the richest soil on the block. And you won't have paid a dime.

Time To Lime?
Not all leaves acidify the soil, but oak leaves and pine needles certainly do. This is fine for acid-loving plants, such as azalea, rhododendron, camellia, gardenia, blueberry, and dogwood. However, many vegetables and flowers prefer soil that's only slightly acid or neutral (pH 6.5 to 7.0). Adding lime is an easy way to counteract acidity. Now is a good time to do it. A simple soil test kit available at garden and home centers can tell you the soil's approximate pH. For a precise recommendation of exactly how much (if any) lime to add, you'll need to get a soil test kit from your local cooperative Extension service.