Autumn always has been my favorite season for a number of reasons. Cool weather brings broccoli and greens to the garden. Fall provides the perfect temperatures for planting trees, shrubs and bulbs. It’s a time for collecting seeds, composting pumpkins and waiting for the first frost to arrive. And then there’s the leaves.

Most gardeners view raking leaves as an exhausting but pleasant outdoor chore — the weather is usually brisk and the air is rich with seasonal change. A time consuming grind, leaf duty is something that most of us face the last few months of the year. But before we pile them high on the curb for collection, keep in mind the many beneficial uses for fallen leaves.

Try to think of fallen leaves as nature’s mulch. They can protect your landscape plants, feed your soil, and they are delivered free to your doorstep. Also known as “leave the leaves,” this gardening principle is a very sustainable way to thwart a necessary autumn chore.

I’m hearing from more and more people that they’re leaving the leaves. Some of these people are gardeners and others are definitely not. But the word seems to be spreading that a leaf-free lawn is overrated. So instead of hauling to the curb or bagging and trashing them, here are just a few ways you can leave your leaves.

If you have any wooded or naturalized areas around your home, this is an ideal place to direct your leaves. These are areas where it’s okay to pile leaves thick, as the surrounding ecosystem will use the leaves to its advantage. Salamanders, turtles, insects, birds and mammals rely on leaf litter for habitat and foraging. Many species of moths and butterflies overwinter in leaf litter. Invertebrates work to naturally compost the leaf litter, which will give them plenty of fuel.

Lawns benefit tremendously from a light layer of mulched leaves. The ticket in this instance is making sure they’re not left on top of grass too thick. A couple of rounds of the lawn mower will do the trick, taking whole leaves down to much smaller pieces. Going into winter dormancy, the lawn is able to use this leave mulch as an organic fertilizer, which breaks down and provides beneficial bacteria for the soil.

Perhaps the best use of fallen leaves is adding a layer of mulch around your trees and within your landscape beds. I spend a lot of money each year on mulch, which I’ve cut down on significantly since I started using fallen leaves in my landscape. I rake and blow leaves into beds and ring around trees out to their drip-line. This provides all the benefits of store-bought mulch, including moisture retention, insulation and feeding the soil.

I also pile some leaves in the compost area near my garden. This is a great way to add brown material to compost layers. Directing mower-mulched leaves to the vegetable garden is a great use, as well. Leaves have all winter to break down and feed your soil, and they can be tilled under in the spring.

If you have a lot of trees and a limited landscape, then it’s not always possible to leave all of your leaves. Sometimes Mother Nature gives us more than we can handle. In that case, consider bagging your mulched leaves and sharing them with fellow gardeners who live in neighborhoods with few trees. Or perhaps your excess mulched leaves could benefit a nearby community garden? There are many options.

And, of course, piling your leaves on the curb for city collection is not bad thing. The City of Winston-Salem and many other cites and municipalities collect leaves and compost them for city residents. The leaf compost is then available the following spring for free to city residents.

It makes good sense to invest our leaf-raking time wisely. Why not get the most out of our urban canopy and put the leaves back into our soils? This sensible and rewarding act of leaving the leaves allows us to bring our outdoor areas and backyards full-circle, the way nature intends it.

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If you have a gardening question or story idea, you can find Amy Dixon on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon. You can also send an email to her attention to news@wsjournal.com. Put gardening in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101

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