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From the October 2012 Conservationist

Colorful autumn leaves in close-up

Photo: Bill Banaszewski

Your Leaves: To Love 'Em is to Leave 'Em

By Mark Gilliland

Fall is a beautiful time of the year; trees are dressed in brilliant colors of yellow, red and orange. But as fall progresses, that colorful foliage starts dropping, covering your lawn in a carpet of leaves. If left intact on the grass, these leaves will deprive the lawn of oxygen and sunlight resulting in dead spots the following spring.

To maintain a healthy lawn, fall's leaves must be managed in some way. If you live in a city, town or village, many of these municipalities provide a service to pick up the leaves and take them to a compost facility. There the leaves are most often put into long piles (called windrows) to biodegrade and turn into compost. Often a portion of this compost is made available to residents. Compost can be used as mulch, tilled into the soil or spread in a thin layer on the lawn. It retains soil moisture, adds nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, and improves soil structure.

A big pile of leaves along side a road in a residential area
Photo: Mark Gillland

While collecting leaves and composting on a large scale is great, in densely populated suburban areas this may not always be a cost-effective and available option, and it can have drawbacks. For municipal pickup, leaves are frequently raked or blown into piles on the curb. Sometimes these piles spread out, creating a safety hazard for drivers and pedestrians. Leaf piles can also wash into storm drains, clogging storm sewers and causing flooding. Some communities require homeowners to put their leaves into bags by the curb. Aside from the amount of effort it takes to move bagged or loose leaves to the curb for pick up, where destination facilities are distant, the transportation takes a lot of fuel and generates emissions.

There is another option for property owners to deal with fall's bounty of leaves: an initiative that the Village of Irvington in Westchester County and some local municipalities have instituted. It's called "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em." Simply put, the idea is to mulch (shred) your leaves in place. It's an easy practice to do, and has a number of benefits, including:

  • Keeps your property healthy: Leaf mulch recycles nutrients into your soil to feed your plants, improves soil health, helps retain moisture (reducing the need for watering in dry spells), and provides additional winter coverage for plant roots.
  • Saves money: Helps keep your taxes down by reducing municipal leaf pickup and costs associated with municipal composting or disposal.
  • Saves effort: Many homeowners (and landscapers) find that mulching leaves in place is easier than raking or blowing them to the curb or stuffing leaves into bags.
  • Helps the planet: Avoids the energy use and air emissions associated with transporting leaves to a distant composting or disposal facility.

So how do you mulch-in-place? The simplest method is to use mulching or shredding equipment such as a mulching lawn mower, a leaf shredder, or a leaf vacuum/shredder. The trick is to shred 'em directly on your lawn into fine pieces (less than 1" square) which will then break down over the winter. Shredding can reduce your leaf volume up to 10 to 1. Of course, you want to make sure that the resulting leaf mulch isn't too thick as leaving too many mulched leaves on the lawn could be harmful. The proper thickness depends on your lawn, the mulching equipment, the number of mulching passes you make and the type of leaves. As a starting point, the tips of the grass blades should still be visible after mulching-if the shredded leaf buildup appears too dense, simply rake the excess onto other areas.

A man mows over fallen leaves with a lawn mower
Photo: Mark Gilliland

Shredded leaves can also be used for mulch on your garden. You can do this by raking leaves into piles on the driveway, shredding them there and then putting the finely chopped mulch two- to three-inches thick on your garden beds as you would any other mulch.

For leaves in your wooded areas, simply leave them alone and let them decompose naturally. After all, your trees evolved to recycle their leaves, thereby fertilizing themselves and helping to maintain the vigor of their root zones. The one "problem" area may be your landscape garden beds, including groundcover areas. Unshredded leaves can be heavy and damp (especially oak and sycamore) and may lead to crown rot in some perennial species. In these cases, carefully pull, rake or blow off the leaves from the beds, then shred and apply the fluffy mulch back onto the beds.

Excess leaves left over from mulching can be used as a "brown" layer in your compost pile. (Shredded leaves have increased surface area and natural decomposition will be more efficient.) Store a pile of leaves near your compost pile; then when you need "browns" to mix with your greens (food scraps and grass trimmings), they will be close at hand. If you'd like to learn how to compost at home, check out the brochure Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know About Home Composting But Were Afraid to Ask!, available on DEC's website.

The benefits of mulching-in-place can be expanded to encompass a three-season approach when you include grass clippings. Leaving mulched/shredded grass clippings in place adds nitrogen and other nutrients back into the lawn. If you use a landscape maintenance company, your landscaper may require some initial instruction in these greener practices, as well as needing a simple, low-cost conversion of mowers to perform efficient mulch mowing. If you use your own equipment, make sure it is in good working condition to minimize any small engine emissions.

Leaf recycling logo with green circling arrows surrounding an orange leaf

Participants in the "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" program encourage all homeowners, property managers, landscapers, and local municipal parks and Department of Public Works staff to check out the valuable information, How-To videos, resources, and calendar of training events, on the program's website.

Mark Gilliland is Trustee Liaison to Irvington's Green Policy Task Force, part of the LELE educational outreach team, and webmaster for the leleny.org site. Contact him at info@leleny.org