Mixing Dead Leaves into Potted Plants: The Pros and Cons


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Leaves often die as a plant matures. These leaves should be removed to promote the overall health of the plant. However, adding dead leaves to potted plants can do more bad than good.

Mixing dead leaves in potted plants can add nutrients to the soil but at the same time reduce the vital nitrogen which the plant uses. During the decomposition of leaves, microorganisms use the nitrogen within the soil. The nitrogen is temporarily unavailable to the plant which can lead to deficiencies. 

It is recommended that the leaves be composted separately to produce nutrient rich compost which can then be added to the potted plant to prevent any negative effects to the plant.

This article includes the ways you can utilize dead leaves and explains the pros and cons of adding it to potted plants as well as –

  1. How it should be added to potted plants
  2. How long will the leaves take to decay
  3. Using dead leaves as mulch

The Benefits of Putting Dead Leaves in the Soil

Mixing Dead leaves in potted plant

The same situation is with fallen dead leaves. Dead and decaying leaves are very useful for the plant’s growth and soil fertility. 

Nature doesn’t produce waste but instead reuse everything in a repeating organic cycle. 

The benefits of incorporating dead leaves into potted plant soil are 

  1. It Provides Food for Microorganisms

    Dead leaves are thought to be very good food and shelter for the microorganism in open soil. Similarly, it is very beneficial for potted plants. 

    Dead leaves provide an environment which facilitates microorganisms and enhances their growth in the potting soil. 

    They enhance the humidity, lower the soil temperature and provide nutrients thus make an ideal environment for the microorganisms. 

    These microorganisms absorb the nutrients (which plant can’t take up) and convert them into nutrients which are absorbed by plants. As a result, they make the soil fertile organically.
  1. Provides Nutrients for the Potted Plant

    Dead leaves are the natural and organic source of nutrients. These leaves contain nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements. 

    The dead leaves are also a rich source of carbon compounds. These are the amazing organic fertilizer of your soil. 

    They are maybe a little acidic but this depends on the nature of leaves you collect.
  1. Helps with Soil Aeration

    The dead leaves improve the soil structure in such a way that they scatter and merge between the dense particles of clay soil. As a result, they create gaps that trap air and allow soil aeration. 

This nutrient-rich soil also invites microorganisms that enhance soil aeration by their movements.

  1. Helps with Soil Drainage

    We already know that the dead leaves make gaps that allow air to pass through the soil into the roots. Similarly, they provide spaces for water and nutrients. 

    As they are mixed between the dense particles of the soil, they provide empty spaces for water to be absorbed and also drain excess water out of the soil.

    They can also convert heavy soil into lighter soil which has the ability of excellent drainage.
Dead leaves in compost bin

The Side Effects of Mixing Dead Leaves into Soil

Mixing dead leaves into soil can create a nitrogen deficient environment for a short period of time. 

This is because microorganisms use nitrogen to break down the leaves into nutrients for the plant to use. 

Nitrogen deficiency in plants can occur when organic matter with high carbon content, such as sawdust, is added to soil. Soil organisms use any nitrogen to break down carbon sources, making Nitrogen unavailable to plants. [Source]

As a result a nitrogen deficiency can be created. 

A shortage of nitrogen results in a marked decrease in plant photosynthesis and nitrogen allocation to the leaves in many plants.

Reduced nitrogen will therefore lead to pale yellow-green color leaves and also slow or stunted growth of the plant.

The Pros and Cons of Mixing Leaves into Soil

ProsCons
Adds nutrients to the soilIt creates a temporary drop in nitrogen available for the plant
Increases soil aerationCauses yellowing of the plant leaves as a ripple effect
Helps with soil drainageCan cause stunted growth due to low nitrogen levels
Increases microbial activity within the soil

Is it Better to Compost the Leaves Separately Before Adding it to the Potted Plant?

It is best to compost the leaves and convert them into nutrient rich soil before mixing them into plant soil. 

The raw leaves are also good if used in small quantities or used as mulch. But if you have a large number of leaves then it is best to add them to a compost and convert it into nutrient rich soil. 

If you put a large amount of leaves as mulch in the pot they will use nitrogen to decompose. As a result nitrogen deficiency will pop up in your plant and soil as previously explained.

The best is to use these leaves smartly and convert them into compost and use a little for mulch.

How to Add Dead Leaves to Potted Plants

  1. Remove Dying Leaves from the plant

    Prune your plants and remove the dead, weak, and diseased leaves. 

    The pruning also helps in the healthy growth of plants as energy is utilized in the growth of younger and healthy leaves rather than decaying the dead and weak leaves. 

    Now discard the diseased leaves and keep the dead and weak leaves.
  1. Gather dead leaves

    Gather all the dead leaves from your garden and on your roofs. The best leaves which make the excellent leaf mold are oak, peach, or leaves of the deciduous trees. 

    Avoid the thicker leaves like host chestnut, sweet chestnut, rubber plant, or tough evergreen leaves because they require a much longer time for decomposition to take place. 

    You can collect pine tree needles but it makes acidic soil mulch which is suitable for ericaceous plants like blueberry. 

    Never add leaves like walnut, eucalyptus, camphor laurel, cherry laurel, and leaves on the side of roads. If these leaves are to be added to the soil they will inhibit the growth of plants.
  1. Crush or cut leaves up into small pieces

    Crush the collected leaves into smaller pieces as a result they have more surface area for decomposition. 

    They also mix up easily with soil. The crushing process will speed up the process of making leaf molds for your pots.
  1. Mix thoroughly into some potting soil then add to the soil

    Leaves should be mixed in approximately 2 to 3 inches within the soil to ensure that the leaves are properly covered and the microbes have full access to break start the decomposition process.

Potting Mixture Preparation:

For the preparation of the potting soil mixture, a simple key is to add 2 parts of leaves mold into 2 parts of sand/perlite and 1 part of compost with a little amount of some slow feeding nutrients. 

Mix well so that all the content is balanced equally. This is the best potting mixture for your grown plants.

Seeding Mixture Preparation:

To prepare the seeding soil mixture the material changes because these are for the new ones. Like if you add fertilizers to a delicate seedling pot they will Burn. 

So add 2 parts of potting soil into 2 parts of leaves molds, 2 parts of sand, and a small amount of vermicast. Add a little amount of chalk if you feel that your soil is more acidic.

It is recommended that the soil be left for about two weeks for the decomposition process to be well on the way so that the seedling will not be affected by any nitrogen robbing.

How Long does it take for Leaves to Decay?

It takes almost 10-12 months. However, you can speed the process to 8-10 months by following the given steps.

  • Use a leaves mower and crush the leaves into smaller pieces.
  • Add a small amount of manure or other organic fertilizer.
  • Moist it continuously throughout the process.
  • Turn the pile upside down every month.

Can you Use Dead Leaves as Mulch?

Different types of mulches can be used to cover the soil such as wood chips, rubber chips, crushed leaves, or even decorative stones.

Among all these dead leaves can provide much more value to soil as a mulch substrate as it will protect the soil  and organically provide nutrients for your plant.

They will not heat the soil like other mulches. They provide an amazing environment for the growth of beneficial microorganisms.

The Takeaway

The dead leaves when mixed into soil will provide plants with nutrients and oxygen

Additionally, dead leaves can aerate as well as promote drainage within soil. 

However, during the process of decomposition a nitrogen deficient environment can be created which can rob the plant of much needed nitrogen which can lead to deficiencies and care must be taken when adding dead leaves to potting plants.

Although dead leaves can provide plants with beneficial nutrients it is often recommended that leaves firstly be composted externally and then added to potted plants to get the full benefit of the nutrients they possess.

JayLea

JayLea has a passion for plants and has been gardening since 2015. He has valuable knowledge about gardening and houseplant care and can answer everyday practical questions that every plant owner has.

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