As beautiful as fall foliage is when it's on the tree, once the leaves hit the ground those striking colors just don’t elicit the same excitement. Rather than bringing out gas-guzzling, noise-making mowers, blowers and vacuums to deal with the residue, consider layering them with soil and other organic residue to make compost or create a new garden bed.
Whether you call it “lasagna,” “berm,” “mulch” or “layer” composting, there’s a myriad of benefits: garden beds can be built on top of soil or even on top of existing lawn; requires less physical labor than bagging and hauling; decomposes to create a rich humus; more closely mimics nature’s way of creating new soil; uses materials already at hand—with the exception of hay, which can help loosen the mixture and increase aeration; and, if it’s done correctly and with a lot of water, can do its work in the course of just one season.
Though composting can be as simple as throwing waste in a designated spot, many “how-to’s” recommend a very structured process that discourages all but the most enthusiastic follower. In mulch gardening, a series of thin layers of organic waste is built up and then—the essential part—the whole area is heavily watered down to decompose. Watering encourages insect and worm activity, settling in, decomposition, and prevents drying out or “pressing” the materials. Since layers are quite thin, moist and not stacked very high, the temperature doesn’t get as high as in normal composting; and since it offers the right conditions for worm and insect activity, more labor-intensive methods of turning and mixing the layers are unnecessary.
To start a new bed on top of lawn, you may want to first lay down soaked layers of newspaper to help smother existing grass. Then begin the layering process, alternating thin layers of leaves (the more decomposed or broken the better), soil, kitchen waste, compost, grass clippings and hay. Moldy, rotted hay is best if you can find it. You can also add used coffee grounds, still in filters if you want, from home or work. Water it in periodically as you’re layering it and don’t add woodchips or sawdust, which will slow down the decomposition. As it breaks down, it will settle to about half the depth of the original layers. Keep it moist through winter, and by spring you will have turned autumn’s gold into “black gold.”