Will over at motherearthnews.com has published an excellent article on mulch with dried leaves. It deal with spreading shredded leaves to control weed growth while providing soil with organic nutrients. Shredded leaf mulch is efficient to apply and highly effective.
A well-powered chipper/shredder is the best way to shred leaves, but it is not the only way. My father used to pile his leaves up by the garage door and run through the pile repeatedly with his push power mower, stirring it up between passes. Cousin Tom makes his into a long, very deep pile (3 feet, or 0.9 m) and wades through it repeatedly with his rototiller, re-gathering it as it spreads out. And of course, we all know the hands-down most efficient way of shredding leaves: You gather them all into a huge pile in the middle of the lawn and tell your kids and all the neighbor kids: “Stay out of this.” Within hours the pile will be reduced to molecules. (To accelerate the process you could hang a used car tire from an overhead limb.)
The problem with all these alternatives is the lack of consistency; some will be crushed to powder while some large pieces will remain. This isn’t a big problem for some uses (say, compost), but for mulching closely spaced crops, including grain, the crude shreds are more difficult to apply. For mulching more wide-spaced crops, like cabbage and tomatoes, and for paths, the cruder shreds produced by a lawn mower work well.
I often end up with more leaves than I can shred immediately. When I have run out of time I have also stored whole leaves loose in a hex-wire (aka chicken wire) enclosed leaf dump, which I cover with a well-weighted tarp. The leaves stay pretty dry until I can shred them the following spring or summer. During this time the bottom layer will get somewhat damp from wicking ground moisture. If I am short on confetti the following spring, sometimes I just spread the dampish leaves out on a tarp to re-dry for some hours and then shred them, although usually I just use the crude method, double-shredding without the grate in place.
Some degree of shredding is necessary for composting leaves, because whole leaves tend to form a soggy mat that will take forever to break down. In fact that was what got me into shredding in the first place: Because I could use only thin layers of whole leaves in the compost pile, I was always using much less than I wanted, in proportion to the hay and other stuff. Once shredded, leaves can be the major ingredient in my pile, quite compatible with my eco-efficiency obsession. Indeed, aside from leaves and brushwood, my composting of corn, sunflower, and amaranth stalks would be very difficult without first shredding them. By reducing the volume and exposing more surface of those materials, I greatly increase the rate of decay, plus the biological heat that renders a superior end product.
Featured Image courtesy of: cgrantham