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The Easy Answer to Weed Problems: Leaf Mulch

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As a gardener, you want to ensure your garden is in the best shape possible. You do many things to make this so. Avid gardeners spend quality time amending their soil and preparing for the growing season. Compost, manure, and fertilizer are added to the ground.

Something else you could do is mulch. There are many ways to mulch; one exciting way is to use leaves. Like many other types, leaf mulch has its benefits, but just how useful is it in dealing with weeds?

Leaf mulch can stop weeds, preventing light from reaching the soil surface. This prevents weed seeds from germinating. Six inches of leaf mulch should be added to achieve the desired results.

Leaf litter mulch in gardens has numerous attributes, and mulching with leaves includes preventing weeds. This post will highlight just how helpful leaf mulch is and provide all the information you need to make it work well for your garden and possible alternatives to prevent weeds.

What is Leaf Mulching

Tony O'Neill scrapping leaves and soil from the forest floor

Mulch is a layer of material that is applied to the surface of the soil and is used for a wide variety of activities, such as trapping and absorbing soil nutrients, conservation of soil moisture, improving fertility & health of the soil, decreasing weed growth and enhancing the visual appeal of the area.

There are many types of mulch, but we will focus on leaf mulch. It is comprised of precisely what it says, leaves, and it is a form of organic mulch and will ultimately decompose. So exactly how is leaf mulch good for plants?

The benefits of leaf litter mulch are abundant. Leaf Mulching is a simple and effective way to recycle leaves and improve your landscape, and it enhances the soil’s fertility and its organic content as it decomposes.

Applying leaf mulch also modifies soil temperatures to keep soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It improves soil fertility, which reduces the need for fertilizing.

Leaf mulch can aid in retaining soil moisture, lessening irrigation needs, and, significantly, leaf mulches also suppress weeds, reducing the amount of weeding the gardener has to do.

How to Apply Leaf Mulch

You should shred the leaves to get the best out of the leaf mulch. It is best to let them dry first, and dried leaves as mulch break down more quickly and shred easily.

You can use a rake to gather them around. The best way to break up the leaves is to mow over them, shred them, and distribute them evenly over the grass.

Also of importance is to weed the soil first. Lay the mulch down on soil that is already weeded. Also, lay down a thick enough layer to discourage new weeds from coming up through it.

It can take a 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch to completely discourage weeds, although a 2- to 3-inch layer is usually enough in shady spots. To use the dried leaves as mulch, spread them at a rate of 3 to 4 inches (7.5 to 10 cm.) around the base of trees and shrubs; and 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm.) over perennial beds.

For vegetable gardens, a thick layer of leaves between the rows functions as a mulch and an all-weather walkway that will allow you to work in your garden during wet periods.

If you know that a garden bed is filled with weed seeds or perennial roots, you can use a double-mulching technique to prevent a weed explosion. Set plants in place, water them well, then spread newspaper and top it with mulch.

Moderation is key. Break up the leaves in such a way as to make sure the sun can reach the plants. You don’t want thick piles of leaves, which will prevent the sunlight from getting through, not letting the plant get essential sunlight and retaining moisture that will kill the grass underneath.

A thick layer of dead leaves can also cause fungal issues later on. Ensure you see the grass with only about 10-20% leaf coverage.

Using leaf litter for mulch is an easy way to recycle the debris in your yard.

Alternatives to Leaf Mulching

Using leaf litter as mulch has many benefits, but you can use many other items to mulch to prevent weeds, and you can try other gardening tips to prevent them from disturbing your garden.

Composting

Composting speeds up the natural decomposition process by which organic materials are broken down and their components returned to the soil. It is a means of recycling almost any organic waste.

You can compost the dead foliage of leaves and use a composter or merely a pile of leaves. Rake the leaves into a pile in an area that gets wet occasionally and let the pile sit for about two years so that it will become rich, crumbly compost.

Keep the leaves moderately moist and turn the pile at least weekly. It’s best to cut them up into fine pieces for quicker composting. Also, mix in some grass clippings to add nitrogen.

Keeping the pile warm, moist and aerated is very important and will help the fine shreds break down quickly for fast compost that will benefit the whole garden.

Tony O'Neill showing the heat generated by chopped up leaves

Planting cover crops:

Also known as green manure, cover crops are grown on new soil with the intent of tilling them in and letting them decompose. The roots keep the soil loose, and the plants suppress weeds.

You could also mulch with other items. There are many kinds of mulch, from organic to inorganic, and each has its unique advantages, and there is not one recommended over another in some cases. All these have the function of suppressing weeds, however.

If you want to know more about cover crops, I wrote a detailed article, and you can view that here.

Tree Mulch:

For this, sections of trees are ground up into a fibrous, rich mulch that you can use on any plant. Tree mulch in gardens can do almost everything other mulch can, including preventing weeds from crowding in by acting as a physical barrier to weed growth.

It prevents weed seeds from reaching the soil and weeds already in the ground from getting the sun they need to grow.

Pine bark Mulch:

As the name suggests, pine bark mulch is made from the shredded bark of pine trees. Other items like fir and spruce may be added to pine bark mulch to make it more suitable for the soil.

Pine bark mulch comes in many forms, from finely shredded or doubled-processed to larger chunks called pine nuggets. They tend to last longer than most organic mulches.

However, pine bark mulch is very lightweight, making it inappropriate for slopes, as wind and rain can quickly move the bark.

Lucerne Hay Mulch:

Lucerne hay is excellent for mulch and is, however, more expensive than other types of mulch. Because the hay is so rich in many essential elements, it makes excellent mulch.

The benefits of lucerne mulch include high protein levels and many essential minerals, including potassium, calcium, iron, and others. It increases soil nitrogen.

It also stimulates healthy root growth and prevents root disease, Feeds worms that help keep soil healthy, and, importantly, helps suppress weeds.

Wood Chip Mulch:

Using wood chips has the added advantage of increasing nutrients in soil over time, mainly because it is organic and will slowly break down, releasing nutrients into the soil.

However, it has some downsides, such as altered soil pH, allelopathic potentials, disease transfer, increased pest activity, and, of course, a fire hazard.

Coir Mulch:

Coconut fiber, or coir, is a natural waste product resulting from the processing of coconuts and comes from the outer shell of the coconut husks. Although coir mulch is easy to apply, it’s necessary to soften them first by soaking them in water for at least 15 minutes.

Sawdust Mulch:

Some people don’t trust sawdust as mulch in their garden shave because it is detrimental to plants. This is, however, not the case. Sawdust needs nitrogen to decompose.

It will draw nitrogen out of the soil and away from your plants’ roots, weakening them.

This is more of a problem if you incorporate the sawdust directly into the soil than using it as mulch. The best way to prevent nitrogen loss is to add extra nitrogen when applying it.

Conclusion

You could mulch in many ways, but leaf mulch is ideal for preventing and providing nutrients to your plants. Using leaf mulch enriches the soil and perpetuates the life cycle by renewing plants. It is also a cheap solution.

It is what nature gives you for free. So please find a way to turn your leaves into something more valuable than throwing them away. They help keep weeds out, and you can incorporate them in more ways than one, as outlined in the post.

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Remember, folks, you reap what you sow.