By Ali Manns

    Outside my window, the silver branches of the apple tree are starting to show, stark and bare as they drop their leaves. The plum and the fig are already undressed. And the lawn has a showy blanket of yellow, red, and brown strewn across it. It wrinkles in the wind and lies flat in the rain. 

    I’m just waiting for the last of the leaves to fall before I gather them. But I also have my eye on a windswept pile down the back lane. And others on my neighbour’s driveway. Am I on a mission to tidy up? It might be a side effect but my real aim is to put the leaves to better use – in my garden soil. 

    Biomimicry – a natural approach 

    Rather than viewing the annual drop of the deciduous trees as debris to be tidied and discarded, it’s a terrific natural resource. Only when leaves are left on the concrete surfaces of our suburban landscape are they a nuisance. Unable to return to the soil food web, they get matted and slippery in the rain or end up washed into drains. But by doing as nature does, we can emulate what happens on the forest floor. We just need to take the time to relocate them, let them do their thing and reap the immense benefits: improved soil health and thriving plants. 

    Here are three ways to use deciduous leaves:

    Apply as mulch

    With a smaller stash of leaves, the simplest thing is to layer them on your veggie or ornamental beds as a winter mulch. It locks in moisture and insulates the soil and plant roots from the cold. As it gradually decomposes, your underground helpers (worms, invertebrates, and microbes) will actively transport the nutrients deep into the soil. To stop them blowing away lay some small branches on top. You can speed up the process by running over the leaves with the lawn mower to break them down before applying them. Then lightly work them into the soil surface – without digging too deeply.

    Make leaf mould

    If you have a bigger quantity and don’t need instant gratification, you can create the delicious, earthy soil of a forest floor by letting the leaves slowly decompose. Simply pile masses of damp leaves into a cage or compost bin in a shady spot and leave them for a couple of years. A round tower made with a section of chicken wire works well as a container. Check it for dry spots every few months, add water as needed but otherwise just set and forget. It’s ready when dark and crumbly with no discernible leaf bits. Used as a soil amendment it will greatly increase the water-holding capacity of your soil and add structure. It can also be mixed with a little sharp sand and some compost to make your own seed raising and potting mix. 

    Add to the compost bin

    The process of regular composting is heat and bacteria driven (unlike the leaf mould process which is cold and fungal). It needs a variety of organic ingredients added in a ratio of 1:2 nitrogen to carbon. Green nitrogen-rich materials include lawn clippings, fruit and veg scraps, coffee grounds, and animal manures. Brown carbons are materials like shredded paper, cardboard, sawdust, wood chips, straw and leaves. Store your autumn leaves to add to your compost bin in thin layers amongst other ingredients (they take quite a while to break down).


    Still got mounds of leaves? And chooks? Give your girls some fun by adding them to the run. With their scratching and poop, the chooks will make short work of the pile and give you great compost. 

    Green Bin

    And if you don’t have the space to use them at your place, offer them to a neighbour or add them to your garden waste bin so they make it to the council compost heap.

    The permaculture principle in action here is Observe and Interact. At this time of year, as the dark nights wrap around us and the days are crisp and sometimes wet, it might seem that there is little to do in the garden but wait for warmer days. You might already be yearning for spring. But nature’s work in winter is deep, if subtle. Join in and embrace the season of slow regeneration. 

    Ali Manns is a Permaculture Designer and Educator living in Yarraville and can be found at

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