After you’ve exhausted yourself piling up multi-coloured fall leaves and leaping into them, and doing it again for your kids and the neighbour’s kids, and so on, you might as well finish the job you started.

Raking leaves and gathering them for useful purposes is as old as the hills. These days, many cities pick them up to use for municipal leaf composting programs.

But you can reap the benefits directly by using your leaves as mulch or as compost in your garden — it’s free and you don’t have to go far to get it.

Leaf mulch is like gold if you’re a gardener. It is made up of leaves that are not yet decomposed, and acts as a barrier to prevent erosion, freezing and windburn in the winter, and retain moisture and keep the soil cool in the summer.

But don’t think that thick layer of leaves lying on your lawn will miraculously do the job. One big problem with leaving a layer of leaves on the grass or perennial bed, is that the layer can become impenetrable once it gets wet and matted, killing whatever is underneath.

So if you want mulch, shred the leaves — this way they won’t matt. Do this by raking them into a pile and buzzing through them a few times with a lawnmower. Or, you may shred them in a garbage can with an electric lawn trimmer, or a chipper/shredder does the job as well.

It’s best to wait until the ground freezes to apply mulch, since applying it earlier can provide nesting materials for rodents intent on building a cozy burrow. But don’t wait for the deep freeze either, since frost and extreme cold can damage plants.

When the time is right, pile six inches of mulch on the vegetable and flower beds, and protect sensitive plants, such as roses or rhododendrons. Arrange it in a doughnut shape around trees and shrubs to protect roots (avoid piling it against bark, as it can be damaged by wet mulch).