Fall is the busiest time of the year in the garden for Jack and me, and the biggest chore of all is leaf management. We have both a significant area of wooded beds and a fairly large lawn, each requiring a different approach. We've tried different strategies the past few years to manage the leaves, always with the goal of returning the leaves to the soil as much as possible.
In the wooded area, we've tried raking up all the leaves, mulching them, and putting them in a compost pile. In the spring, we use these not-quite composted leaves as mulch in our beds. This is a good process with one big caveat: it is a lot of work! So one year we tried just letting the leaves lie where they fell. This strategy was a lot better for our backs in the fall, but it added to our tasks in the spring. The leaves decomposed very little over the winter. We did not like the way the garden looked, so we had to do a spring leaf clean up. But perhaps the biggest problem with this strategy was that the thick leaf cover created the optimal conditions for moles and voles.
Last year we raked the leaves out of the wooded area, mulched them, and then immediately returned them to the beds as leaf mulch. The mulched leaves did not provide the thick cover that whole leaves did, so this made a less hospitable environment for moles and voles. The leaf mulch was still visible in spring, but the plants quickly covered it up, and by fall it had, for the most part, returned to the soil. I think we'll use this strategy again this year.
With the lawn, we always used a mulching mower to shred the leaves early in the season and allowed them to remain in the lawn. Leaving whole leaves on the lawn is thought to be bad for turfgrass, but small leaf pieces decompose and contribute to the health of the soil in a variety of ways. We have a lot of trees on our lot, and so for us, the question became "can you get too much of a good thing?" Because we didn't know the answer to how much is too much, we never left all the leaves on the lawn. Early in the season, we mulched the leaves with the mower and left them on the lawn. But when a lot of leaves started to fall, we raked them to another area, ran over them several times with the lawnmower, and then moved them to the compost pile. Again, a lot of hard work.
Recently, I came across several articles (such as this one in Fine Gardening and this Michigan State Extension Service article) that suggested that a LOT of leaves could be mulched into the lawn. These articles also said that, in addition to providing nutrition for turfgrass, mulching leaves into your lawn reduces the need for herbicides (weed killers and preventers), and Jack and I like the idea of using fewer chemicals. So this year our plan is to mow most/all of the leaves into our lawn. With the number of leaves that we have in some areas, this may require double-mowing but that is still less work than raking and composting.
Jack is a bit skeptical of mulching so many leaves into our turfgrass, but I had a good feeling that this could work well. I may feel differently as the fall progresses because many more leaves have yet to fall. I'll keep you updated.