There is probably no bigger controversy raging in the letters to the editor of my community newspaper, The Rivertowns Enterprise, than the debate over leaf blowers. Maybe deer culling, but we’ll get to that in a future post. Irate citizens have been writing in for years, complaining as angrily as possible about the noise and the pollution caused by gas-powered leaf blowers. Many municipalities, including ours, have enacted leaf-blower bans that are in effect all season except during spring and fall clean-up weeks. Well, it’s peak fall clean-up time now, and a drive around Irvington yesterday found landscape crews blowing every last leaf off just about every lawn. But that’s not how they do it everywhere.
I just returned from a trip to Birmingham, AL, where they don’t clean up as meticulously as we’re conditioned to do in the Northeast. I would have hosed and raked, I thought as I began to tour a stylish private garden—where leaves were on the patios, in the flower beds, and in the containers. But after a few minutes I realized that the leaves look beautiful, natural, appropriate, and real. Why not leave them there?
Use Leaves as Mulch in Beds and Borders. Need mulch? Leaves are plentiful, attractive, and free. For several years I’ve been instructing our lawn guys to rake the leaves into the beds, not bag them and take them away. A four-inch layer protects the roots of perennials and shrubs when the ground freezes and thaws. The leaves can be removed in the spring.
Compost Your Leaves. What doesn’t go in the beds can go in the compost bin. When my husband and I got married in 1992, a friend gave us a compost bin as a wedding-housewarming present. It wasn’t the most glamorous gift, but it might be the most useful and long-lasting. Since then, we’ve bought two more bins, and use them to compost our vegetable and fruit trimmings, coffee grounds, eggshells, grass clippings—and every leaf that will fit in. My master-composter husband swears by the Exacto Trading EARTH Earthmaker, which sifts the finer particles into lower bins that can be removed easily. The compost then goes into potting mix for containers and top-dresses the beds every spring.
Nick Pinsker of Enviro-Citizen.org explains: “Composting is the cheapest and best means of yard cleanup. It keeps fall foliage and food residuals—which together constitute 23 percent of the U.S. waste stream—out of landfills. Each season a single tree can shed up to 600 pounds of leaves. Composting can return more than 70% of the nutrients back into the ground and greatly reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.”
Mow Leaves into Your Lawn. Many people in our community—yours, too?—are asking their lawn services to switch to mulching mowers, which chop up dry leaves and grass clippings and leave them in the lawn as fertilizer. According to hometips.com, mulching mowers are like food processors for lawns. They have a special blade and an enclosed deck that minces the clippings and leaves into small particles before depositing them back deep into the turf, where they decompose in a few days. The result, if conditions are right and the mower is well designed, is a clean appearance without unsightly clumps. Prof. Thomas A. Nikolai of Michigan State University concurs. Over several years, his team has conducted three experiments to examine the feasibility of mulching tree leaves into existing turfgrass canopies. As reported in an article in the professional journal Grounds Maintenance, they found several significant benefits; grass quality increased; less broadleaf weed growth; and grass plants grown had greater percentages of carbon and nitrogen.
There are a number of brands of mulching mowers available at Sears, Home Depot, etc. How well these consumer models (as opposed to the professional models tested by the Michigan team) mulch leaves, and not just grass clippings, is being debated. So some experts, like Earthshare, recommend ordinary hand-powered mowers, which have the least environmental impact and apparently can do a pretty good job of chopping up the leaves.
Please leave comments with your mower experiences and we’ll do a follow-up. In the meantime, I’m not going to be fastidious this year. As the photos in this post illustrate, leaves can be beautiful.