What to Do With Your Leaves

mulching mowerI have always heard that leaving a few leaves on the lawn is a good thing. But when I visited the New York Botanical Garden recently I saw pristine lawns with no leaves in sight. So which is better?
I asked Kurt Morrell, who is the NYBG’s head of landscape operations. It turns out he is passionate on the topic of leaves because it has become a hot-button topic for municipalities around the country. Recent university studies have looked at the issue of “yard waste management” because of the negative impact on the environment of large piles of leaves and grass clippings in municipal landfills.

At the NYBG, Kurt uses a mulching mower for the lawns early in the fall, so that the leaves get chopped up finely and left right on the grass. They are invisible to the eye, especially from a distance. Later in the fall, when the leaf drop is heavier, instead of mulching them he picks them up and transports them to the compost heap. The NYBG produces 1,500 yards of compost a year and leaves are an important component of the mix. The following spring that compost is used in a variety of ways in garden beds and tree wells.

Are chopped up leaves bad for your lawn? Many home owners (including myself) wonder whether there are long-term negative effects of leaving leaf mulch on the lawn.  The recent university studies, conducted over several years, have enough data to show that there are no negatives, and in fact there are some positives. What they found is that overall soil quality improves, with no substantial buildup of leaf mat, regardless of what types of trees you have (needled pines excepted). The increase in microbial activity breaks down the chopped up leaves and improves aeration, water infiltration and even weed management. The key is to chop up the leaves finely with a mulching mower.

Is Doing Nothing an Option? I like the look of a clean lawn, so it wouldn’t occur to me to leave my lawn full of leaves. That’s a good thing, because turfgrass specialists told me unshredded tree leaves can smother the grass and kill a lawn. Even a thin layer can rob your lawn of access to the sun and increase the chances of snow mold in the winter.

leaf shredderLeaf Shredder One of my horticulturist friends, Ruth Rogers Clausen, loves her leaf shredder. She throws armfuls of leaves down the shoot and into a kangaroo bag, then layers them on her garden beds for the winter. In the spring she takes a pitchfork and pokes it into the top two to three inches of her garden beds, gives it a twist and fluffs up her soil.

Leaves for Compost Pound-for-pound, leaves have twice as many minerals as manure, according to the plant specialist at the New York Botanical Garden who answers a consumer call-in line. Leaves provide much needed carbon, which complements the nitrogen found in grass clippings and other compost greens. If you can shred the leaves first they will decompose faster.

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Dorian Winslow is the president of Womanswork, and is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors.

Horticulture publishes the free weekly e-newsletter, “Smart Gardening Tips,” and “The Curious Gardener,” a free monthly e-newsletter with more tips and articles by Dorian. Subscribe to our e-newsletters.

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About Dorian Winslow

Dorian Winslow, the president of Womanswork, is passionate about making the best products on the market for women who garden and work outdoors. She writes several "Curious Gardener" articles each month for Hortmag.com.

9 thoughts on “What to Do With Your Leaves

  1. I have a stone planter built into the front of my house, below a large picture window. I plucked the annuals from it this fall, but this year I’m going to experiment and leave the handful of perennials in the planter over winter. It’s only ~16″ deep (or “wide”); since it’s not down in the ground, and the soil won’t stay as “warm” as in a regular garden bed, I’m going to stack a bunch of garbage bags full of leaves up against the planter (I bagged up over a dozen 39 gallon bags). And I used one bag’s worth of leaves as mulch for added protection. Hopefully, between the stacked bags and the mulch, there will be enough insulation to keep the soil temp high enough to sustain the plants…but like I said, it’s an experiment. :) (And not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing one, at that!–But hey, this year I’m going for “productive” over “pretty”, haha!)

  2. I scoop up leaves and put them in a plastic garbage can. Then I pulverize them with a few zaps of my weed whacker.Three feet of leaves gets reduced to 6 inches of leaf scraps. I keep adding layers of leaves until the barrel is full, and then add them to compost pile. No need to buy a “leaf shredder” if you have a weed whacker.

  3. I put most of my leaves in the compost. I set a few aside for the compost next spring (my bins were filled!) and put some on my garlic as mulch. This was my first year of not having my leaves taken away and it felt great!

    Lynn

  4. All my fallen leaves get reused and returned to nature on my property; just as every single use plastic shopping bag also gets either repurposed or returned to the store for recyling.

    Can’t say either of these statements are true of my friends or neighbors.

  5. I not only keep my own leaves, but also take some of the leaves put on the curb by neighbors. I only take leaves that have been chopped up. I put them all on my garden beds, and they will break down to mulch over the winter and early spring.

  6. I use my mulching mower and mow all the leaves. When I stop mowing for the winter, the rest are raked up and added to the compost pile to be enjoyed in next year’s garden beds.

  7. Michigan State University is doing a study on the effects of mulched leaves on the lawn. They are finding that keeping mulched Maple leaves, especially Sugar Maples, on the lawn has more benefits than you listed in your article. The mulched Maple leaves actually act as a “natural herbicide” and inhibit dandelion growth! This is especially true on sunny lawns. Chalk one more up for “going green!”

  8. I used to live on a heavily wooded lot. In the fall when the leaf cover was heavy on the lawn, I would put a bag on my mulching mower, mow over the leaves and fill garbage sacks with leaves, add a little water and manure and stack them alongside the house. Our Texas Gulf Coast winters are pretty temperate and come the spring I had great leaf mulch which lasted me through till early summer in my many garden beds.

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