Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Real Gardens

Piling Leaves and Stacking Functions

There’s a permaculture concept called “stacking functions.” It refers to choosing strategies that have several benefits or accomplish multiple goals.

Take, for example, a strategy I’m fond of: smothering lawn with fallen leaves to create new planting beds. I have done and will continue to do this in different parts of my yard over time to create my new garden.

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Fallen leaves and grass clippings were piled to create new planting beds in my fenced front yard.

The leaves that I use were delivered to my doorstep free by a lawn and tree care service. In my city, there is a limited program for collecting yard waste for compost/mulch, so they may otherwise have been taken to a landfill.

They sat in my yard in plastic bags until I was ready to use them. Yes, it is sad that the bags were plastic rather than paper, which could be composted in place right along with the contents. Better yet might be delivering in bulk with no bags at all. On the other hand, bagged materials are easily portable. I could thus use them in different parts of the yard during different times of year, and they were ready when and where I needed them for the next garden project.

Finally, and most importantly, these cast-off materials make amazing soil. The bags include a mix of dry brown leaves, pine needles and cones, fresh grass clippings, and small twigs. It’s a perfect mix because of the variety of nutrients and minerals.

As any gardener knows, soil is accumulated wealth. It is not easy or cheap to add if not already present in the garden. And crucial to good soil is a thriving and diverse community of soil organisms. These relatively lightweight materials are the cheapest and most effective way that I have found for making new soil and attracting all manner of beneficial soil organisms.

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The same area one year later, after adding rock patio and paths and some new plants.

So to recap, I am stacking functions by piling leaves to smother a lawn. I am transforming a waste product into a valuable component of my garden, getting a resource free (not counting my labor, of course) in a portable form, and adding a diverse mix of nutrients and minerals that will infuse my soil with life and boost the health of future plants.

For some with finely tuned aesthetic preferences, this strategy can be hard to stomach despite its many benefits. My parents were touring my new garden just after I spread my bagged treasure across an area that may become a little meadow next year. She assured me that the future meadow was quite exciting, and he commented, “It looks like a dinosaur came through here and pooped all over the place.”

Posted by on November 5, 2014 at 5:34 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Real Gardens.
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36 responses to “Piling Leaves and Stacking Functions”

  1. I am on this leaf bandwagon with you! Just yesterday, the city leaf collection truck passed by me several times while I was out working. I have few trees and have been plotting methods for collecting the neighbors curbside leaf debris without looking too much like the neighborhood crazy. I finally stopped the truck and asked if I could have some leaves. He was more than happy to oblige. I now have a HUGE pile on my driveway awaiting my wheelbarrow today. So excited! Here’s to less lawn, new beds in the spring, and awesome soil! ~Julie

    • That is great, Julie! How convenient they were coming through. In previous years, I have been known to prowl large-treed neighborhoods in my truck. On numerous occasions, this gave me the opportunity to explain the contributions of fallen leaves to garden health. However, it is better to only have to move them once! Happy gardening.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Another thing to remember is that many overwintering insects, bees, butterflies, etc are possibly in the leaves too. Another good reason to keep them around.

    • Great point, Stephanie. They are important habitat.

      • anne says:

        And not to put a damper on it, but bad bugs and diseases can come with the leaves too, so it pays to keep an eye out in the spring. But overall, I think the benefits far outweigh the possible negatives.

        • It’s always a balancing act with nature, isn’t it, anne? :)

        • Stephanie says:

          I understand that there can be pests overwintering–but 97% of insects are beneficial, and if you are allowing beneficials to complete their life cycle, you are ahead of the battles so to speak. Lacewings, ladybugs, preying mantises, Hover flies, etc all overwinter. Once you’ve destroyed the beneficials, it takes them longer to return than the pests. Plus, the insects feed migrating and nesting birds.

  3. Susan says:

    Evelyn, I’m curious – how do you keep the leaves in place? I’d love to do this, but I live in an extremely windy area of western NY. (Frankly, it’s an event when it’s NOT windy around here.) It would be a great way for me to expand planting area without killing myself digging, but the leaves would be down the street in a New York minute without something to hold them down.

    • Susan, that is a problem, especially with oak leaves, which stay so dry and whole. Lisa-Ontario (below) mentions some effective solutions. I have set up a sprinkler before to wet down an entire area. I have also tromped through them to crush and settle them. Or try composting (at least partly) them first, either in the bags as Lisa-Ontario suggests, or loose in a more sheltered part of the yard. Once a layer of leaf litter is in place, it can help reduce erosion in an exposed site.

    • Martha says:

      I pour the leaves over the garden and then cover all winter with a black tarp or plastic. The leaves stay in place and the tarp helps heat them a bit. In the spring, they’re slightly decomposed and ready to dig into the topsoil.

  4. Lisa - Ontario says:

    My father would say something similar. He prefers a very formal tidy garden. Mine is wildlife friendly and jungle like. I am the neighbourhood crazy that grabs everyone else’s leaves from their curb. The first year I just dumped them loose in my backyard, however some of them did blow to my neighbour’s yard ( I don’t think he was very impressed). Now I leave them in their bags until they have decomposed a bit, then they don’t blow. Or if you are ambitious, run over them with your lawn mower then put them on your beds, they don’t tend to blow as much that way, although they stick to my schnauzer’s legs much more.

  5. Tibs says:

    I have 2 neighbors who dump their leaves and grass on my compost pile. I know they use No chemicals. Do you know what lawn care products have been used on the stuff you are getting?
    Confession time: I put leaves on the devil strip for pick up. Hanging my head in shame. I’m not making any new beds. (This year). I have enough to top dress the existing beds. I will bag up some leaves to layer with next summers grass clippings. My goal for next year is to get the husband to quit bagging our grass so it can fertilize our lawn. Mowing and edging are the only things he is allowed to do so I don’t interfere. Much.

    • Tibs, your question is a tough one. I have no idea what chemicals were used on the lawns in question. I can only hope they will be broken down by the robust decomposition processes that I’m encouraging.

      It would be better in my mind to use clippings from chemical-free lawns, but I chose to take the risk in order to take advantage of the opportunity to have the materials delivered in quantity. My neighboring properties are not chemical-free, nor are the local nurseries at which I’ve bought some plants, so I am making choices to create the healthiest landscape possible with a reasonable amount of effort, realizing that I and my property will still be exposed during this stage.

      Over time, I hope to implement more protections (foliage shields and so forth). And I trust that maintaining good health (in myself and the landscape) is also a protection.

    • Ruth says:

      We have a mulching lawnmower. Not only does he leave the grass clippings, my hardworking husband also blows leaves from beds and driveway to the lawn, then mulches them up with the mower. He continues to mow weekly well into fall, even after the grass stops growing in order to mulch these leaves. We have a little forest area of White Pines where no grass will grow, so piles of leaves are piled, then mowed in that area, then transferred as a finely chopped blanket to beds. It makes me happy to see the City leaf truck pass by our house.

  6. Laura Bell says:

    For years now, I have ranged through my suburban neighborhood with my trust leaf-vacuum/mulcher, saving leaves that would otherwise go into the city’s green waste. the neighbor’s think I’m crazy for doing it, but I think the same of them for not doing it. These leaves have turned my veggie beds from barren clay, to rich, dark gardener’s dream soil, and my blueberries now live and happily produce in soil that would otherwise be too alkaline for their taste. Once I present these neighbor’s with fresh produce or preserves from my backyard, they think I’m maybe not so crazy after all. At least temporarily. My next venture is to kill the front lawn, bury it underneath a pile of leaves, and plant a more appropriate garden there. That will really increase my crazy quotient around the neighborhood!

    • Oh FUN, Laura! Looking forward to hearing how the front garden project goes. I just planted a bunch of bulbs in my new front beds. So many worms, such crumbly moist dark soil. It is really a treasure, especially when I dig in other parts of the yard and see the difference.

    • Diana says:

      I killed my front lawn a few years ago and put in shrubs and perennials. My neighbors went from thinking I’m crazy to thinking I’m crazy but admiring my garden. They also got used to seeing me pick up bags of leaves in the fall for my compost bin. This weekend one of my neighbors actually delivered her bags! I think I have a reputation….

    • Jayne Shord says:

      When you place the leaves on your veggie beds, do you leave them on top of the beds over winter or do you turn them into the soil. We have high winds on our farm and everything ends up getting swept away over winter. If you leave them on top of the beds, what do you do in the spring when it’s time to plant seeds.

      • Joe Schmitt says:

        Don’t dig those leaves in. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to incorporate undigested cellulose into the soil unless it doesn’t matter that you will tie up nutrients in the soil for several years. Organic matter is best either composted separately and then incorporated, or left on the surface as naturally occurs on the forest floor, where all of the magic happens harmlessly at the soil/litter interface.

  7. Kylee Baumle says:

    We can always count on our dads to speak their minds, can’t we? 😉 My dad walks through our yard and says, “Why did you guys plant so many trees? I’d sure hate mowing around all of those.” We love our “Hundred Tree Woods.”

    • Pam J. says:

      “We can always count on our dads to speak their minds, can’t we?”
      Oh yeah. Just reading your remark made me hear my dad’s voice bluntly barking out something like “why in the hell did you do that?” It wasn’t fun until he got old. I miss that.

    • Sheila says:

      My dad would be right there with me, collecting leaves and salvaging things people don’t want. We don’t care if people think we’re crazy! I think I got my gardening gene from him! :)

  8. Anne Wareham says:

    I dumped all our grass cuttings in a large heap where I want to extend a bed this year.(It’s how I made the garden – http://veddw.com/) I was amazed that none of our hundreds of garden visitors commented – wonder if they are all so wonderfully savvy!?? Don’t understand the weird name such mulching has acquired though…rather off putting?

  9. Kari Trottier-Whitsitt says:

    Hi Evelyn! I have that huge horse chestnut in the front yard so I get a ton of leaves. Those have not all dropped yet, but we get a huge amount from our neighbors trees also (which are currently covering our front “yard.”) I have no grass in front or back. I’ve been contemplating leaving the leaves in place this winter to avoid mud! I would love for moss to grow in. I’ve tried to encourage this. We tend to have white mildew in the front in the actual dirt. Would it be best to rake the leaves to avoid encouraging mildew or leave them? It is very shady due to the tree. Would love your advice. I do plan on using my leaves to smother an area behind our fence to prepare for a bed of Black Eyed Susans for next year. Thanks for your wonderful post!

    • Kari, it might be that you could plant some shrubs under those trees, which would hold up better to the leaves. Then you wouldn’t have to move them (or so many of them). Shrubs give you a lot of color, fragrance, winter interest, etc all in one plant, so they are good for busy gardeners too.

      Possible shrubs to try include Snowberry, Gooseberry, Currant, Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera), Deutzia, Korean Spice Viburnum, Beautyberry, Hydrangea, Hazelnut, Witch Hazel, Yew, and Siberian Cypress (Microbiota decussata). These vary in size and moisture/sun requirements, but maybe the list will give you some ideas.

      • Kari Trottier-Whitsitt says:

        Thanks for the tip, Ev. I will think about some bushes. Good idea. So far, we have not been able to grow anything under that tree. I think the acidity is very high due to the chestnuts (perhaps). I’ll keep trying. :)

        • Mischelle says:

          I’m not sure where you live Kari, but your horse chestnut tree could actually be a butternut, or white walnut, tree. Are the nut husks smooth or are they bumpy? If they are smooth they would be the white walnut, which sends out a toxin (juglone) that prevents other plants from growing around it. Butternuts were a common and very desirable nut tree until the 1950’s when a disease wiped most of them out. They are now quite rare and I find that they are often misidentified as horse chestnuts. I was guilty of this misidentification until an old-timer in our neighborhood pointed it out. The nuts, by the way, are delicious!

    • Kari, Do you see the white mildew when you dig in the soil and partially broken down leaves? If so, that may be a good thing! It is most likely all the beneficial fungi who grow in the leaves-sometimes in strands and form all the good relationships with the soil and plants. I’d take this as a good sign you are growing good soil! Google photos of mycorrhizal fungi.

  10. Kari Trottier-Whitsitt says:

    Oh yes…and there are the nuts. Leave those for now?

  11. Debra says:

    Hi Evelyn. Sorry for the newb question but how did you use all those leaves? Like, did you dig them into the clay soil or did you just let them slowly decompose on top?

    • Debra, I will do another post about the next phase to show you how well it works, but briefly, I don’t do any digging. The leaves decompose on top and attract soil life underneath, and gradually the layers of soil and leaves are mixed together.

  12. Lisa - Ontario says:

    One night on the farm, my now ex-husband and I were out on the porch having an evening coffee. It was a rare warm evening in April I believe. We heard a whole lot of rustling in the leaves in the flower bed in front of us. He went and retrieved a flashlight, I thought there would be mice or something similarly unpleasant, however it was the worms using up the leaves from the previous fall. I love worms. They do a lot of work for us.

    • Joe Schmitt says:

      I experienced that phenomenon for the first time also, about a month ago. The whole landscape was alive. Fascinating. Try not to think of the sandworms of Dune.

  13. thefolia says:

    Bravo! Happy Nesting.

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