Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

How to Shred Fallen Leaves for Mulch: 5 Options

By: Zac Friedman

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Instead of bagging your fallen leaves and throwing them out with the yard waste, consider using them as mulch. Mulching your garden with shredded leaves can help suppress weeds, retain soil moisture, insulate the soil, and reduce erosion. The leaves also add valuable nutrients and organic matter to the soil as they degrade. Best of all, they’re free. 

Before mulching with leaves, it’s important to shred them. If you don’t, they will form a mat that blocks air and water from reaching your plant’s roots. This can slow their growth and even smother them. In this guide, I’ll explain how to shred fallen leaves for mulch, step-by-step.

There are a few ways to go about shredding leaves. You can use a shredder or you can use your lawn mower. Some leaf blowers can shred leaves. There are also some DIY solutions. 

How to Shred Leaves for Mulch: 5 Ways to Make Leaf Mulch

How to Shred Leaves

Start by raking your leaves like you normally would. You want them all in one big pile so they’re easier to shred. Try to rake on a day without any wind. Also, make sure the leaves are dry. Dry leaves are much easier to shred. After raking:

1. Use a Leaf Shredder 

A leaf shredder

The most efficient and easiest way to shred leaves is to use a leaf shredder or leaf mulcher. These tools are made for the purpose of shredding leaves. They are the best option if you have a large property with lots of leaves to process. 

There are several different types of leaf shredders available. Most look like a bucket on a stand. You put the leaves in the top, a motor turns a blade in the bottom. The shredded leaves fall out the bottom of the shredder into a bucket or bag. Some leaf shredders look like miniature wood chippers. You put the leaves in one end, a blade shreds them, and then they are blown out the other end. Some leaf shredders work like a vacuum. You suck the leaves up with a hose that directs them into the shredder. The leaves fall are caught in a bag.

There are also leaf shredder attachments for some lawnmowers and walk-behind tractors. These shredders use the motor of the mower or tractor.

The nice thing about leaf shredders is that most models discharge the leaves directly into a bag or bucket. This makes them easy to transport and use wherever you want them. Shredders also produce consistent and even-sized shreds. They are available in gas and electric models.

The only drawback is that a leaf shredder is kind of an expensive and bulky piece of equipment. You’ll probably only use it once or twice per year during the fall. For most home gardeners, it doesn’t make sense to own a leaf shredder. Some models can be used to chip small pieces of wood and shred other plant matter. These are more versatile but more expensive because they need more powerful motors.

2. Use Your Lawn Mower

Lawn mower

If you don’t have a leaf shredder, you can use your regular lawn mower to shred them. To do this, start by raking the leaves so they are in a layer no more than a couple of inches high. If they’re too thick, they will clog up your mower and cause it to stall. 

Mow over the leaves to shred them up. You may have to pass over them multiple times to make sure they’re all shredded into small enough pieces. It helps to mix the leaves up between passes so they get cut to more consistent sizes. You can use a gas mower or a push mower for this. You can use a regular mower or a mulching mower. 

If you have lots of leaves, you may have to do this in several batches. While you’re mowing, be sure to wear gardening gloves and eye protection, just in case. 

After you’re done mowing, rake the shredded leaves into a pile and transfer them into large yard waste bags or into a bucket. From there, you can apply them wherever you need them. 

The only drawback to this method is that the leaves probably won’t be cut into consistent sizes. There will be some leaves that will be crushed practically into a powder. Other leaves will be large. 

This isn’t a problem if you plan to use the leaves for compost, on walkways, or for crops that are spaced out, like cabbage or tomatoes. These inconsistent leaves don’t work well for crops that are closely spaced, like grain. 

3. Use a Leaf Blower

Some leaf blowers have a shredding function. In shredding mode, the fan is reversed so the leaf blower sucks instead of blows. There is a blade inside that shreds the leaves. There is also a bag attachment to catch the shredded leaves. 

These can work well if you have a small amount of leaves to process. They also work well for getting leaves out of hard-to-reach spaces. You also don’t have to rake first. You can just blow the leaves into a pile then turn on the shredding function.

There are some drawbacks. If you have a lot of leaves, a leaf blower may be inefficient. Also, not all leaf blowers have a shredding function. You’ll have to choose a model with a shredding setting and a leaf bag. 

This is how I used to shred my leaves until I bought a shredder. It worked well but it was a bit time consuming. 

Leaves around the base of a tree

4. Use a Weed Whip

It’s also possible to use a weed whip to shred leaves. To do this, start by placing the leaves in a big plastic garbage can. Run the weed whip around inside the garbage can to shred the leaves up. Stop and mix the leaves every once in a while so they get shredded evenly. 

You will have to do this in several batches. You can play around with different amounts of leaves in each batch until you find the most efficient amount per batch. When I used this method, I filled the garbage can about ⅓ full. 

Make sure you’re wearing eye protection, gloves, and long sleeves while you’re doing this. The weed whip can fling debris all over the place. 

This trick works surprisingly well. I have done this on a few occasions before I had a leaf shredder. 

5. Make a DIY Leaf Shredder

There are a few different ways to make your own leaf shredder. One option is to use an electric drill. Attach a weed whip head to the drill. You will need to mount it to some type of metal rod before you can attach it. The drill will spin the weed whip head fast enough to shred the leaves.

You can use this device just like you would use a regular weed whip. Place the leaves in a bucket or garbage can. Run the device inside to shred the leaves. Stop and mix the leaves once in a while. For best results, shred them in small batches. 

This is a good option if you don’t have much space for storing tools or if you only have a small amount of leaves to shred. An electric drill is much smaller to store than a whole weed whip. 

A pile of leaves

Why Shred Leaves?

You need to shred your leaves before using them as mulch. If you leave the leaves whole, they will form into a mat and they will take forever to break down. The thick mat of leaves can prevent air and water from passing through into the soil. This can suffocate your plants. Mold can also be an issue.

Shredded leaves break down much faster because they have more surface area for bacteria to feed on. The smaller pieces also allow air and water to pass through more freely.  

It can make sense to shred leaves, even if you’re going to throw them away. The reason is that the shredded leaves take up less space. In fact, they take up about half as much space as they do in their whole form. 

This is nice if you have a limited amount of space in your yard waste bin. You can fit more leaves if you shred them first. It’s also nice if you have to pay by the bag to dispose of your leaves. Shredding them first can save you a good amount of money because you can fit twice as many leaves in every trash bag. 

How to Use Shredded Leaves

You can use leaf mulch in your flower beds, vegetable garden, or in potted plants. When applying leaf mulch, pile the leaves in a thick layer 2-4” deep around the base of your plants. Leave a gap of at least 1-2” between the stem and the leaves. If you don’t, the leaves can cause your plant’s stem to mold. This can kill the plant. 

Another great use for shredded leaves is for making compost. They are a ‘brown’ material. Leaves provide lots of nitrogen. After they break down, you can use the compost in your garden. 

You can also make leaf mold. This is a type of compost made from leaves. To make leaf mold, wet the leaves, cover them, and leave them for around a year. They will break down into a nice crumbly compost that you can use around your plants. I make some leaf mold every year. I like to apply leaf mold from the last year in the early spring. 

You can also use shredded leaves on walkways. They will help keep weeds down. Keep in mind that wet leaves can be slippery. You’ll only want to do this on flat walkways in places where it doesn’t rain often. 

a pile of leaves

Benefits of Shredded Leaf Mulch

Shredded leaves make great organic mulch for your garden. Shredded leaves can:

  • Prevent weeds from growing by making it harder for them to germinate and push through.
  • Help retain soil moisture by shading the soil. This slows evaporation so you don’t have to water as often.
  • Add valuable nutrients to the soil as they break down. They are a great source of nitrogen.
  • Reduce soil erosion. They prevent soil from washing away when it rains.
  • Insulate the soil. During the summer, they shade the soil to keep it cooler. During the winter months, they create a barrier between the soil surface and the ice and snow so your plant’s roots stay warmer. This reduces stress on your plants.

Leaves can be a really effective mulch. 

What If You Have Too Many Leaves?

If you have more leaves than you can shred, you can store the piles of leaves until you need them. You can make an enclosure out of chicken wire and dump the whole leaves in. Cover them with a tarp to protect them from the rain and snow. They will say relatively dry until the following spring. When you need them, you can shred them.

When you’re ready to shred them, spread them out in the sun and let them dry for a couple of hours then shred them using your chosen method. The leaves toward the bottom may get wet and start to degrade. That’s fine. You can use them as compost.

You can also pre-shred leaves and use them at a later time. Just shred them and pack them in feed bags or place them in a bin. You want to keep them dry so they don’t degrade. Throw a tarp over them to keep the rain and snow off. They will be ready to use when you need them. 

You can also shred them and make leaf mold. It takes 1-2 years to make a good leaf mold.

My Experience

Before I knew I had to shred my leaves, I tried using them whole. I found that I could only apply a thin layer. If I applied them too thick, they would clump together and take forever to break down. I ended up removing them and throwing them away.

After some research, I learned that I had to shred my leaves first if I wanted to use them as mulch. I tried several methods.

First, I used my leaf blower. It worked fine but it was kind of slow. Next, I tested my lawnmower. This method worked well but it was kind of a hassle to pick up the shredded leaves. I also tested out the weed whip method. It worked okay too.

In the end, I decided to buy a small leaf shredder. It’s nice because I can shred the leaves directly into a bucket. From there, I can easily transport them to my garden. It’s easy to shred fall leaves with the right tools. 

I use most of my shredded leaves as mulch in my vegetable garden. I also use grass clippings and pine needles as other forms of free mulch. Sometimes, I make leaf mold out of part of my leaves if I have more than I can use. If I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just throw some in my compost pile and make leaf compost. There are lots of uses for leaf litter. 

Every year, the leaves will fall of your deciduous trees. Dead leaves are great mulch. You can get them for free. It’s easy to shred them. They will help keep the weeds down, retain moisture, and add organic material to your soil. Using leaves as mulch is more environmentally friendly than sending them to the landfill.

Do you use shredded leaves as mulch? Share your experience in the comments below!

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How to Shred Leaves for Mulch: 5 Ways to Make Leaf Mulch

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