It’s Time to End a Wasteful, Outdated Practice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 and robs yards of one of nature’s greatest resources: rich, natural compost. This practice causes diesel pollution, and is a waste of time and a waste of money — taxpayer money. There are alternatives and they’ll save you time AND money. The sustainable way of managing leaves involves mulching or composting them on your own property.
- saves money
- saves time
- adds nutrition to the soil naturally
- improves soil structure for better lawn growth
If we stop blowing our leaves onto the streets for the town to pick up, everyone wins.
In the small town of Bedford, NY, where Leave Leaves Alone originated, the town’s curbside pick-up program requires Town of Bedford workers to spend many hours scooping leaves up from the street and carting them to a composting facility. Each fall in the Town of Bedford it takes 10 people with 10 vehicles six weeks to pick up leaves.
The Benefits of Leaf Mulching
Mulching creates less noise and reduces greenhouse gases because it reduces use of leaf blowers, which are highly polluting.
Mulching saves valuable topsoil and doesn’t blow dust and contaminants into the air.
Muching improves soil structure and reduces the need for fertilizer.
Mulching saves taxpayer money and frees municipal work hours for better purposes.
Mulching reduces the safety hazard of piled up or bagged leaves on the roadsides.
Mulching avoids water pollution by reducing phosphorus and fertilizer leaching.
Mulch, when spread on garden beds, suppresses weeds and improves soil quality.
Mulch, when it decomposes into compost, suppresses disease.
The Easiest Way…
Undoubtedly, the easiest way to get rid of leaves is to mow the leaves into your lawn. If you mow weekly, one pass will usually be fine. During peak leaf drop in the fall, you may need to make more than one pass over the fallen leaves. The chopped up leaves fall between the grass blades, decompose and nourish the soil. No need for lawn fertilizer, no need for raking!
The mowing of the leaves will break them into smaller pieces that decompose over time. This is called mulching or mulch-mowing.
Leaf Mulch Makes Cents!
Plant Bed Protection: To add a 2” layer of mulch to a 40 x 4 ft flower or vegetable bed you need one cubic yard (or 13.5 x 2 cu. ft. bags) of mulch. If you get one cubic yard of mulch delivered to your home, it costs about $30; plus there’s usually a delivery charge. Leaf mulch is an easy, inexpensive mulch that you already have in your garden.
Leaf Mulching in Action
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 (they fall between the grass blades) or they can be piled 3″ or 4″ deep on garden beds and around shrub roots (but not right up against the stem) 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 (natural composting) 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 tools for peak efficiency. Deep piles of leaves are no match for landscapers equipped with leaf mulching blades and deck attachments described on our For Professional Landscapers page.
If there is deep leaf material left on the lawn after a deep pile has been mulched, it can be raked or blown around shrubs or simply redistributed around the lawn to slowly decompose and feed the soil. Mulched leaves reduce in volume more than 10-fold
Other Ways to Manage Leaves
(if you really don’t like the idea of mulch-mowing.)
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. Pull out the rake and a tarp to move the leaves: you’ll probably find it, as we did, much more efficient that blowing leaves with a leaf blower across a yard.
To make your pile of leaves decompose more quickly, you can shred the leaves with either a leaf shredder, or a push 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.
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
Shred the leaves into small pieces and place them on your flower beds as mulch for winter protection. 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.
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. 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.
Leave Leaves Alone is a Bedford 2020 program.
From Bedford 2020:
“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! was developed by a group of Bedford, NY, residents, most of whom were Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, concerned about the environmental pollution and destruction of soil properties caused by the practice of blowing and raking leaves onto the streets for town pick up.
Our mission is to educate landscapers and homeowners on the value of leaf mulch; to remind them that nature is there to do most of the work for us, and that fall leaves are actually a great natural resource: one to be valued, and made use of — on site — not trucked to a composting facility.