Clearing up autumn leaves can be a lot of work, especially if you have a large lawn. It's tempting to just let the leaves lie there, especially if you have an organic lawn. The reality, though, is that it's in your best interest (and your lawn's) to clear away those leaves. You can, however, simplify the task or use the leaves to improve next year's garden.
Why Doing Nothing Is Not a Great Option
Leaves that are not removed from your lawn block sunlight and air from reaching the grass. The problem becomes worse when it rains or there are early snows that turn fluffy layers of leaves into soggy mats. The lack of light and air circulation can cause turf diseases or, in a worst-case scenario, may even smother the grass and kill it.
One of the easiest ways to manage your leaves is to mulch them. Mulching leaves is simple: just shred the leaves with your lawn mower as much as possible as they fall. Check to be sure that the mulched leaf material left behind is not excessive. It should blend in nicely with the turf and not accumulate so much that the grass suffocates.
For those who insist on a spotless lawn year-round and might be concerned about what the neighbors will think of the brown leaf bits the mower leaves behind, don’t worry. The shredded leaves will filter through the grass and disappear from sight. In northern lawns that go dormant or in grasses such as Bermuda or zoysia that turn a dormant brown color in winter, the shredded leaves may even blend right in. Better yet, if you continue this practice each fall, in a few years, mulching can help you have a luscious spring and summer lawn free of dandelions and crabgrass.
While mulching is easy, fallen leaves often harbor disease, which can overwinter when the leaves are left on the ground. These diseases are usually host-specific. For example, a disease that affects deciduous trees won't damage grass or perennials. Raking them up in the fall can reduce the diseases you encounter the following spring and summer.
In some communities, residents rake leaves into the streets, and city workers sweep them up. The problem with this strategy is that many of the leaves are washed into gutters where they make their way to streams and waterways. There, they release nitrogen and phosphorus into the water, which encourages algae growth. Excessive algae growth depletes the water of oxygen and kills fish and other aquatic life.
Check to be sure you know where your leaves will go. Ideally, your town will collect and compost them, making the compost available for gardeners in the spring. If your town doesn't offer this service, consider mulching or composting rather than pitching the leaves.
Some people complain that they have no luck composting leaves. “We make a pile of our leaves,” people say, “but they never break down.” This is not very surprising; a simple pile of leaves can take a great deal of time to turn to mulch. Fortunately, there are two things you can do that will guarantee success in composting leaves:
- Add extra nitrogen to your leaf compost. Manure is the best nitrogen supplement, and a mixture of five parts leaves to one part manure will certainly break down quickly. If you don’t have manure—and many gardeners don’t—nitrogen supplements such as dried blood, cottonseed meal, bone meal, and granite will work almost as well. Nitrogen is the one factor that starts compost heap heating up, and leaves certainly don’t contain enough nitrogen to provide sufficient food for bacteria.
- Grind or shred your leaves. It will make things simpler for you in the long run. A compost pile made of the shredded material is really fun to work with because it is so easy to handle.