Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em
October 23rd, 2012
One of the many perplexities of humans that I haven’t figured out yet is why we spend so much time in fall trying to get rid of every last leaf in the yard, then turn around in spring and pay for products such as fertilizer, mulch and soil amendments.
Leaves are all of those things. They’re an excellent and free resource that drops from the sky – nothing short of a gardening gift from God.
They’re not nature’s trash, and I think it’s time we rethink our leafy habits.
I see a lot of yardeners this time of year using noise-polluting, air-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers to move their leaves to the curb. The American Lung Association will tell you that’s a huge source of allergens – not only fine particulates but molds, toxins, bird poop, etc. stirred up from the ground.
Then we add to our blower, gas and antihistamine bill by paying even more money for our municipalities to come around in gas-eating trucks to suck up the leaves and haul them away.
When the wind blows before the truck comes, the leaves blow over the street, where they become a driving hazard in wet weather.
Then there’s leaf-caused car fires. I remember the late Camp Hill Borough Manager Andy Janssen telling me about the many fires that happen every fall when people park over curbside leaf piles and set the dry leaves on fire with their hot engines.
Even when the piles stay in place, rain leaches nutrients from the leaves and carries this brew into the storm-sewer system, where it ultimately adds to nitrogen and phosphorus excesses in the Cheasapeake Bay.
Curbside leaves are also notorious for clogging storm sewers.
On the other hand, leaves make a wonderful natural blanket to insulate our gardens over winter (i.e. free mulch).
They’re an ideal ingredient in the compost pile when mixed with year-end grass clips and frost-killed plants (i.e. free soil).
Instead of polluting water with leached nutrition, leaf nutrition is much better redirected onto our lawns and gardens (i.e. free fertilizer).
And when worked into soil, leaves are one of the best materials to break up our lousy clay and shale (i.e. free soil amendment).
Rather than blow my leaves away, I gather them or use them in place. Most years, I’ll even go out to my curb to retrieve leaves that have fallen there.
Leaves that fall and/or blow into my shrub and perennial beds or around trees, I “leave” in place. Come spring, they’ve packed down and already are decaying, making an effective mulch that also feeds the soil.
If you don’t like the look of that, just top it with a light layer of bark mulch for that “clean” look that’s so popular. No need to rake the leaves off first.
In the lawn, I mow over my leaves. Chopped into bits, those leaves work their way into the lawn soil by spring, where they again add organic matter and nutrition to feed the grass. These don’t cause thatch as many people think.
Michigan State University researchers did some comparisons of lawns where leaves were mowed in vs. raked off, and the leaves-on lawns were healthier and better performing. Between mowing in leaves and letting your grass clips lie, it’s a no-brainer. You’re returning nutrition and organic matter to the lawn instead of draining it with constant “nutrition withdrawals.” That makes a whole lot more sense to me than draining the lawn account and then paying to fertilize four or five or six times a year to compensate.
If you like the lawn neat, just run over the leaves twice to double-chop them.
If you have a ton of trees that all drop at once and there are so many leaves that you can’t even see the lawn, then it’s best to get them off.
Two other instances where you might consider moving leaves – ones that are blowing up in piles against buildings and ones thickly covering evergreen groundcovers, such as pachysandra and vinca.
Personally, I use a people-powered rake in these cases. I can use the exercise (i.e. free health club). A decent alternative is an electric or battery-powered leaf vacuum that sucks up the leaves and chops them before depositing them in an attached bag. That still stirs up some allergens, but at least you’re not directly using gas or blowing the leaves to the curb.
Whether raking or bagging, don’t toss the leaves.
I always keep a few bags to use as mulch in the vegetable garden the following spring. It’s a free alternative to straw – and no hay-seed or weed germination to worry about.
I also use a few bags as insulation around my marginally hardy fig tree. I wrap a tarp around the tree and stuff the insides with leaves, then tie off the top for winter.
I’ll also move some of the excess leaves from the lawn or groundcover to places where they’re more needed, such as around trees, shrubs and perennials.
In years where I’m digging a new bed or improving an existing one, I’ll dig in some of the leaves to improve drainage. They’ll compost quickly in the soil.
And with any leaves that are left, they go on the compost pile along with the spent garden plants and year-end grass clippings to make the perfect compost blend. (It’s good to cut the lawn a little short at season’s end to reduce moisture-related snow mold coming out of winter.)
I ran across one county in New York State (Westchester) that’s thought this through enough to start an initiative to get their residents to use their leaves on their property.
It’s called “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.” Clever, eh? Check out the Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em web site (www.leleny.org) that has all kinds of excellent tips and information.