A Wasteful Practice…
The annual ritual of raking, blowing, piling, bagging, and trucking leaves out of residential neighborhoods costs each homeowner – or their landscaper – hours of time each fall. It also robs the yards of one of nature’s greatest resources: rich, natural compost. The practice of leaf blowing causes serious diesel and particulate matter pollution, especially with the use of 2-stroke backpack leaf blowers so commonly used in suburban backyards.
There are alternatives and they’ll save you time AND money
A more sustainable way of managing leaves on lawns involves mulching or mulch-mowing. Mulching helps to limit the negative impacts associated with leaf blowers.
Mulching is easy to learn and easy to do whether a homeowner or professional.
More and more landscapers and homeowners are switching from blowing leaves to mulching them.
Mulch mowing can save municipalities (and taxpayers) tens of thousands of dollars, by avoiding the necessity of municipal collection.
PLEASE NOTE that leaves are an essential resource for ecosystems. We do not advocate mulching leaves that fall on flower beds because they are an important habitat for overwintering insects, and many butterflies. To encourage biodiversity in your yard and help insect populations, which are in serious decline, leave leaves whole over the winter wherever possible. Mulch the leaves on the lawn to avoid smothering the lawn, but leave whole leaves in perennial beds, under tree canopies, and around shrubs. Ideally, these should not be cleaned up at all, but if you have to, wait until there have been several 50 plus degree days in the spring.
The Benefits of Leaf Mulching
We advocate mulching leaves that have fallen on your grass lawns, rather than blowing them off the lawn. Mulching the leaves on your lawn has many advantages: It reduces noise and greenhouse gases, because it reduces the use of leaf blowers; in an added bonus, it also enhances the health of your yard by creating valuable compost, which enriches the topsoil. Leaf mulching avoids the spreading dust and contaminants into the air and saves you time and money. The benefits of leaf mulching are numerous.
Mulching improves soil structure, reduces the need for fertilizer and avoids water pollution by reducing phosphorus and fertilizer leaching.
Mulching reduces the safety hazard of piled up or bagged leaves on the roadsides and saves taxpayer money for municipal leaf collection.
Mulch, when spread on garden beds, suppresses weeds and improves soil quality and when it decomposes into compost, it suppresses disease.
By adding organic matter to the soil, leaf mulching improves water retention and percolation, for improved rain water management.
Additional organic matter loosens the soil allowing grass roots to penetrate more deeply, improving grass health.
Not all leaves have to be mulched. Rake them around the base of trees and shrubs or into perennial beds where they will protect the roots of those plants as well as provide essential winter habitat for butterflies and other important insects.
What is Leaf Mulching?
Leaf mulching is the practice of chopping leaves into small pieces. Mulching can be done with a lawn mower or a leaf shredder.
Mulched leaves can be left on your lawn or they can be piled 3″ or 4″ deep on garden beds and around shrub roots, where they act as a protective layer in the winter and, in the growing season, prevent weed growth and help conserve water. Leaf mulch decomposes over time adding important nutrients and structure to the soil.
Mulch-mowing can be done by both homeowners with small mowers or by commercial landscapers who can buy relatively inexpensive mulching kits to attach to the mower deck instead of regular blades. Deep piles of leaves are no match for landscapers equipped with leaf mulching blades and deck attachments described on our For Professional Landscapers page. Mulch-mowing with a regular mower might require repeated passes in the leaf season.
If there is too much leaf material left on the lawn after a deep pile has been mulched, redistribute it with a rake into the planting beds or spread it around the lawn.
Like mowing deep, wet grass, mulch mowing deep piles of wet leaves can be difficult. Spread the leaves thin and try to mow when leaves are dry.
Click here to see mulch-mowing in action
To add a 2” layer of mulch to a 40 x 4 ft plant bed you need one cubic yard of mulch. One cubic yard of mulch delivered to your home costs about $30; plus a delivery charge. Mulch in plastic bags, sold at the store, is even more expensive and less environmentally friendly. Leaf mulch is an inexpensive mulch that you already have available. Leaf mulch is not treated with chemical preservatives or paints and it decomposes more quickly than wood mulch into healthy soil.
Other Ways to Manage Leaves
Pile The Leaves
Not a fan of the mowing idea? Pile the leaves somewhere where they won’t be disturbed and leave them alone. It’s best to put them in a spot where they are not too sheltered, as the pile needs to get wet occasionally. After about two years or less, you’ll have rich, crumbly compost, about 1/20 the size of the original leaf pile, ready to add to your flower beds or around your shrubs. You don’t have to use the compost; you can just ignore it and leave it where it is. Raking leaves onto a tarp to move the leaves can be much more efficient than blowing leaves with a leaf blower across a yard. (This will eliminate annoying the neighbors with leaf blower noise and avoid generating toxic fumes and polluting the air with particulate matter.)
To make your pile of leaves decompose more quickly, you can shred the leaves with either a leaf shredder, or a chipper/shredder, which is more expensive, but able to also handle twigs and small branches. You can also pass over leaves with a lawn mower, or put them in a garbage bin and mulch them with a weed whacker. This is really good when you don’t have much space as it will reduce the volume of your leaf pile to about one tenth of its original size. Shredding leaves this way speeds up decomposition: if you do this in the fall, you can expect to have compost by mid-summer the following year.
So you like things to be nice and tidy? No problem. Build a container and compost the leaves. A ring of chicken wire is the simplest leaf container but any containment system works as long as the leaves are exposed to air and water. A container stops the leaves from blowing around and they will slowly decompose and turn into compost. When it’s ready, remove the compost and use it in your garden and wait for the next fall to top up the container.
Suitable for small areas, leaf vacuums allow you to gather the leaves and shred them at the same time. Add them to a compost pile, or place them onto perennial beds and around shrubs as protective mulch. This mulch decomposes and enriches the soil.
Use Them As Insulation
You can shred the leaves into small pieces and place them on your flower beds as mulch for winter protection. Or, even better, don’t shred them and just leave them on the flower or vegetable garden beds for the winter. If they haven’t broken down by spring, remove them (piling them in a compost pile) to allow any tender plants to emerge or leave them and they’ll keep weeds down in the growing season. (If you have very tender perennials, which will have trouble emerging through a heavy leaf layer, the leaves will need to be moved. But many tougher perennials just emerge through a light leaf layer with no trouble.)
How to Use Compost
Compost enriches soil — it’s like vitamins, combined with pre- and probiotics for the soil. You can add it to flower and vegetable beds, plant pots, window boxes, around shrubs and trees and as enrichment to grass lawns. More details here.
Toss Them In The Woods
Although it’s better to mulch your leaves, and leave the chopped up leaves on your lawn and flower beds so they can enrich your soil, you can just rake or blow your leaves into the woods – if you have woods. (Be sure not the pile the leaves too deep around the tree trunks in the woods, so spread them around. Too thick a leaf layer may also smother understory trees.) The trees, from which the leaves fell, will thank you as their soil is nourished by the decomposing leaves breaking down into compost, just as nature intended. Please note that using a leaf blower in garden beds is very destructive to topsoil and bad for plants. It is best to remove leaves from flower beds by hand or with a rake.
About Leave Leaves Alone!
Leave Leaves Alone! was developed by a group of Bedford, NY, residents in 2011, most of whom were Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, concerned about the environmental pollution and destruction of soil properties caused by the practice of leaf blowing. Our message goes far further than our small town and our mission is to educate landscapers and homeowners on the value of leaves and leaf mulch; to remind them that nature is there to do most of the work for us, and that fall leaves are a great natural resource that should be valued and not regarded as trash.
Leave Leaves Alone is a Bedford 2020 Program
“Leave Leaves Alone is an important step toward fulfilling Bedford’s Climate Action Plan. The Bedford 2020 Coalition applauds this effort to improve the health of our local soil and reduce the noise and gas pollution associated with carting leaves away each year. Initiatives like this will help achieve our goal of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.”
Leave Leaves Alone is part of the Healthy Yards Campaign
Healthy Yards is an organization committed to help people change from harmful yard practices, which produce greenhouse gases and endanger wildlife, to healthy yard practices, that do exactly the opposite. Healthy Yards offers healthier alternatives so that we can build healthy ecosystems in our back yards that support bees, butterflies, birds and more. For more healthy yard practices please visit: Healthy Yards www.healthyyards.org
Leaf Blowers Restrictions
More and more people are becoming aware of the health risks associated with leaf blowers as well as the environmental pollution and destruction of habitat caused by leaf blowers, particularly gas-powered blowers. More than 120 communities around the country have restrictions on leaf blower use and that number continues to grow. For more information on the health hazards and environmental and social issues surrounding excessive leaf blower use please visit Quiet Communities and Huntington CALM For information about switching from gas to electric-powered tools, including leaf blowers, visit the American Green Zone Alliance.