Why You Should Never Burn Your Fallen Leaves—And 6 Things To Do With Them Instead

Leave your leaves!

October 12, 2017
Mike Kr?mer / EyeEm/getty

With autumn officially underway, it won’t be long before your neighborhood trees have turned orange and red, and then shed their summer foliage. For many, that means it’s time for a little raking and a big leafy fire.

Burning leaves, however, is bad for the environment and bad for you. The burning of plant matter, however seemingly natural, releases chemicals including carbon monoxide and other toxins that contribute to global warming, and when burning matter is wet, even more chemicals are released—so much so that standing by a burning leaf pile can be as bad for you and having a smoke break. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do with those fallen leaves instead. Below, six good options to get you started.

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

fall leaves
Vasilii Kosarev / EyeEm/getty
Leave them where they fall

Put your rake away and go put your feet up. Those leaves don’t have to go anywhere. Decomposing leaves send nutrients into the soil, and after many years of degradation, become leaf mold, which creates healthier soil that holds water better—learn more about leaf mold here. Further, leaves left over the fall and winter create homes for local wildlife, including birds and insects.

Related: 9 Things You Should Be Doing To Clean Your Fall Garden In Preparation For Winter

composting leaves
Compost them

Add those leaves to your compost pile for rich, nutritious compost, or toss them in your vermicomposter (worms will break down pre-shredded leaves faster than whole ones). If you don’t have a composter yourself, many communities collect organic waste in the fall months for composting. Look up your area’s city or locality website or call your city hall for requirements on leaf collection to ensure your leaves are prepared properly for compost collection and don’t end up in a landfill. (Here's everything you need to know to get started composting.)

(Want to make your own DIY vermicomposter bin? Check out our quick video below to find out how!)

Make mulch or insulation

Fallen leaves spread over garden beds will act as a natural weed barrier and fertilizer. Alternatively, mow back and forth over fallen leaves for a finer mulch that will decompose faster. Mulch keeps soil warm and moist, and can therefore be used to protect tender plants from the winter cold by insulating them with piled leaves, either at root level only, or piled over the entire plant. (Here's everything you need to know about mulching.) Root vegetables like carrots and turnips can also be preserved between layers of dry leaves. Store them in bins or drawers with a thin mat of foliage between each layer of vegetables.

leaf crafts
Sam Bloomberg-Rissman/getty
Get crafty

Get the kids involved by first going on a leaf hunt. You'll also teach them to be involved in and pay attention to nature, which has been proven to be beneficial to health and wellbeing.

Fill a basket with the brightest, crispest leaves, then take them home and get crafting. The internet abounds with leaf-centric crafts (search “fall leaves” on Pinterest and you’ll get the idea!), especially with Halloween and Thanksgiving around the corner. Press the leaves, make a vibrant fall wreath or centerpiece, or take on a leaf bowl, scarecrow, or leaf collage. Creating a leaf rubbing artwork with crayons or colored pencils is another great activity for younger kids.

Use them for bedding

If you have animals like rabbits or backyard chickens, dry leaves can be used for a cheap and easy bedding. Line your coops or cages, and let your creatures enjoy some autumn comforts. (Read more about leaves as bedding here.)

playing in leaves
Robert Daly/getty
Play in them

What child doesn’t associate autumn with the satisfying crunch and bounce of a thick leaf pile? And no kid has ever turned down a good, old-fashioned leaf fight! You can make the set-up a family activity—with the added bonus of exercise and fresh air. (Here are a few reasons adults need to make more time to play.) Rake your leaves into multiple piles or one great big one, or make your own obstacle course. Embrace your inner child and make your leafy yard the most fun on the block.

So ditch the fuel and matches this year and opt instead for a method that is better for you, your yard, and the planet. If you find you have just too much fallen foliage to make use of it all, offer your excess leaves to treeless neighbors or local community gardens. Others might be happy to take them off your hands for their own use.