Your fall leaves are a valuable resource that most homeowners let go to waste by having them blown into piles on the street, or perhaps raked into brown landscaping bags stacked curb-side, left for eventual town pickup. Often these vast piles spread out, washing into the storm drains and potentially clogging them. Ugh! What a mess!
So as a homeowner, are there options? What approach to dealing with fall’s bounty of leaves is close enough to the “norm” that both homeowner and lawn care crews can embrace a greener methodology? Answer: Leave ‘em in place!
Mulching (shredding) in-place is the best solution. It is easy to learn, easy to implement, gets great “green” points, and best yet: actually saves time & money!
As an example of budget figures (and thus a source of possible tax savings), my village averages $30k dumping fees each fall for vacuuming up and carting leaves away upstate. Combined with labor costs, equipment maintenance, gas, etc., the seasonal costs are often well over $100k for the village. Removing leaves from our waste stream potentially eliminates this cost, resulting in reduced taxes. Most other villages and towns in our region would probably show similar costs and potential savings.
Mulched leaves are a low cost way to naturally fertilize your lawn and to fertilize and mulch your landscape beds. Benefits of applying leaf mulch to your garden include:
- Increases water holding capacity of soil, especially useful for absorbing rainwater runoff.
- Lightens clay soils and gives fluff to sandy soils.
- Cools roots in summer and provides additional protection in winter.
- Increase nutrients in the soil.
- Increases biological activity of earthworms, microbes, and other beneficial soil organisms.
- Eliminates or reduces yard waste from the entering the costly municipal “waste stream”.
- It’s a free “fertilizer” for your landscape plants, vegetable garden and lawn.
By now you’re thinking, “OK, I’m sold! So how do I mulch-in-place? What’s the secret?”
There is no secret! It’s as simple as shredding your leaves into smaller pieces. You can shred ‘em using a lawn mower (preferably a mulching mower or mower with a low cost mulching attachment), a leaf shredder, a leaf blower / vacuum shredder, or even a DYI setup using a weed whacker inside a trash can. Almost like magic, leaf volume when shredded can be reduced up to 10:1.
The trick is to shred ‘em “in place” (minimize handling) where ever possible. This means to shred ‘em directly on your lawn into fine pieces. These will break down over the winter and fertilize your grass as well as help to prevent excessive turf compaction. On your driveway, rake into piles and shred ‘em, then collect the fine mulch and apply it to your garden beds 2’-3’ thick like you would any other mulch.
Leaves in your wooded areas? Simply leave ‘em alone and let ‘em decompose naturally. After all, your trees have 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. Un-shredded leaves can be heavy and damp (especially Oak and Sycamore) and may lead to perennial crown rot in some species. Carefully pull, rake or blow off the leaves, shred, and reapply the fluffy mulch back onto the beds.
But wait! There’s more: You’ve probably heard about the “green movement” to compost your leaves and grass clippings so as to produce rich compost for your Victory Garden. And while composting is fairly easy to do, there are a few “tricks of the trade” to follow so as to ensure that your pile does not go sour (termed going “anaerobic”) and produces compost. The key is to balance the amount of “green” (grass clippings) and “brown” (fall leaves) placed onto the pile. The pile ideally should be 3’x3’x3’ in size and also needs to be periodically watered and turned over. In anywhere from 6 months to a year (sooner when using a rotating compost machine), your pile will convert itself into a rich black compost mulch full of plant nutrients and beneficial microbes, mycorrhizae, and minerals. Your tomatoes will love you for it.
Any excess leaves left over from your mulching, once chopped up, could be used in your compost pile, as well. (These serve as a “brown” layer in your compost recipe.) Shredded leaves in your pile undergo speeded-up decomposition. Of course, deadheaded or cut-back perennials can also be place on the pile, as well as vegetables, bread and fruits. (These all serve as a “green”.) But to avoid attracting unwanted varmints, food wastes should generally be avoided except by the more experienced composter.
But the reality is that for quite a few homeowners, composting is often too much effort or perhaps considered too messy to deal with. Mulching-in-place is simpler, faster and cleaner overall.
The one impediment for many homeowners to “going green” with their leaves is getting their landscape maintenance company on board. The typical mow & blow landscape grounds crews would never consider maintaining a compost pile on your property, no matter how beneficial. Nor would they think to mulch-in-place. They simply aren’t trained this way. Mow mow mow. Blow blow blow. Into the street. Your yard is left spotless and inert.
Everyone needs “re-training”, from homeowner to landscape crews to DPW staff. Watch for upcoming GPTF public education sessions on mulching-in-place. Perhaps you can help to organize and sponsor one in your village or town. For more information and to discuss sharing resources contact the GPTF at firstname.lastname@example.org
The sooner we start having everyone’s leaves “mulched-in-place” and/or composted on-site, the sooner we can start saving tax dollars AND benefit our shared environment by eliminating the senseless trucking of valuable leaf resources into another county or community. It’s a win-win situation. Save green by going green!