How to put fallen leaves to work for your lawn, garden

Should leaves just be left where they fall?

Theresa in Silver Spring writes: “The National Wildlife Federation just issued a news release recommending we not rake our leaves and instead leave them on the ground for wildlife. They say that grass also benefits from this as a natural fertilizer. We typically collect and shred our leaves and add them to the compost bin. Which do you think is a better option for us?”

Do not let whole leaves lay on lawns

Well, let’s start with the lawn advice. With great respect toward the NWF, whole leaves left on a lawn will smother the grass and breed winter molds. If you read through the comments at the end of its website article, you’ll find many others issuing the same warning. It’s just a bad idea.

But mowing those same leaves into the lawn turns a problem into a plus — the pulverized leaves are an excellent natural fertilizer; and they’ll help break down any thatch at the soil line.

The NWF has a good basic point here: Fallen leaves left to their own devices in natural habitats do gradually revitalize the soil, and they immediately support a greater abundance of wildlife. That’s why I very specifically don’t collect any of the leaves in my woods. (Which are so nearby that the temptation to ‘just take a few’ is strong; I’m staring at them right now as I type!)

Luckily, it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. Leaves that fall into gutters and onto lawns, walkways, driveways and other humanized areas are fair game. And those leaves are the essential ingredient for making great compost. And using compost instead of chemicals on lawns, gardens and landscapes keeps that wildlife safe.

So give unto the woods what falls in the woods, but make black gold out of the rest!

Mow, mow, mow your leaves …

Sarah, with the Little Falls Watershed Alliance in Montgomery County, writes: “It’s time for my annual pitch about having a healthier lawn by mowing the fallen leaves into your turf instead of raking them up. This is not a radical idea,” she continues, quoting a Washington Post article reporting that Winterthur, one of those beautiful old DuPont Estates in Delaware, has been mowing its leaves rather than collecting them for more than 20 years with great success.

And she adds her own experience as well, noting she was initially so skeptical of trying this at home that the first time, she only mowed a small amount into one area of her own lawn and raked off the rest. But she says she was “converted the following spring when the grass came up greener than ever!”

Thanks, Sarah — nothing perks up a lawn better than a whole grain meal of pulverized leaves!

Even Scott’s (yes, THAT Scott’s) agrees! (Kind of …)

The alliance in Montgomery County — where upcoming restrictions on herbicide use mean that residents will soon have no choice but to learn how to manage their lawns more naturally — has a great article on its website encouraging residents to mow fallen leaves into their lawn rather than rake them up.

“Mow Don’t Rake” cites the success one of the grand DuPont estates in Delaware has had with this technique, and links to similar endorsements from the University of Michigan and Fine Gardening magazine.

But the absolute kicker is a thumbs-up on leaf mowing from the Scott’s fertilizer company. Its website says you can mow up to 18 inches of beneficial leaf litter into your lawn.

Scott’s??! Is it possible that the famous Four-Step company took a 12-step program?

(Sigh) No. If you read the whole article they also say to add chemical fertilizer when you’re done — which is totally unnecessary (and which will also be illegal in the region in another week).

Guess they only took a six-step program … …

Super success comes from shredding

As we go to press (well, as we would go to press if we had a press), I am personally on a roll to capture a record number of fall leaves. Using a corded Toro blower-vac* close to the house and a neat rechargeable unit that Hammacher Schlemmer** lent me to test for harder-to-reach areas, I’ve already filled two huge wire-cage ‘bins’ and four sealed backyard-style black plastic composters with shredded leaves.

The open bins, made from animal fencing, will produce a fair amount of compost on the bottom by spring, which I’ll use to mulch plants that like to throw hissy fits, such as tomatoes, roses and lilacs. The shredded leaves that remain un-composted on the top and sides of the big bins will be used to mulch everything else. The sealed black plastic units are where I recycle some of my kitchen waste. I don’t want to attract any unwanted visitors with my garbage, and these recycled black plastic units are pretty vermin-proof. As a rule, I try to make them 80 percent shredded leaves and 20 percent waste, and get a nice amount of finished compost by the spring.

Anyway, leaf vacs are my favorite garden tool: They capture and shred leaves into the perfect particle size for mulch and compost-making, all while you stand up. (If you rake or blow, sooner or later you must bend.)

And shredding leaves dramatically reduces their volume, allowing you to fit enough leaves to fill at least 12 bags when they’re whole into a single bag once they’re shredded. So unless you live in an apartment or such, that means you have no excuse to not store at least a bag or two for use as your garden mulch next year.

And once you see what a good mulch can do for your plants, you’ll never throw another leaf away!


* This is the model I’ve been using with great success for the last five years.  (It’s been replaced by a model that reviews say is very similar.)

** This is my shiny new toy. The rechargeable battery only lasts for two bags’ full, but I’m only using it at full speed turbo power to really shred my leaves. (It apparently lasts a much longer time when you use it as a blower, which I just can’t see the point of.) The battery recharges fully in about 90 minutes, so I just switch to other tasks in between.

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