Roots and Shoots: Put Your Leaf Blower Away

Leave the leaves for a healthier yard

By Pamela Doan

The most common questions I get from readers involve leaves, compost and lawns. Each can be handled in a way that contributes to climate change by releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, or in a way that reuses resources and is sustainable. Fall is a time when the three topics overlap nicely. Changing your approach in one area can make the others easier.

According to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency, yard trimmings make up nearly 30 percent of solid waste collected by haulers. In a landfill this material decomposes and releases methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Instead of rotting in the landfill, these organic materials could be nourishing your garden and lawn while providing habitat to wildlife.

It's almost time for a fall walk, kicking up the leaves. (Photo by P. Doan)
It’s almost time for a fall walk, kicking up the leaves. (Photo by P. Doan)

Let the leaf blower sit unused this season. What you see as messiness is a treasured resource for your backyard habitat. According to the National Wildlife Federation, leaf litter is used by a number of species for habitat, nesting material and food, including birds, invertebrates such as spiders, worms and caterpillars, frogs and toads and lizards. For a fun, short read, download the free e-book, Life in the Leaf Litter, at the American Museum of Natural History.

Decomposing leaves are an important part of healthy soil because they add nutrients and humus to the texture. Microorganisms love leaves.

Here are some ways to capture the benefits of fallen leaves:

  • Let them lie in place on the lawn and landscaping as much as you can.
  • Mulch while mowing and don’t rake. Shredded leaves hold in moisture and feed the grass. When torn, leaves break down faster.
  • Use leaves as mulch in the vegetable garden or flowerbeds. Shredded leaves can cover soil in the spring and hold in moisture, as well as become a source of nutrients for the plants. I used shredded leaves as mulch for weed control in my garden this year and it helped. They were easy to spread and will work right back into the soil again. During this hot, dry season, the mulch kept water from evaporating as quickly.
  • Some studies have shown that adding leaf mold to your soil increases water retention by 50 percent. This is the simplest way to manage leaves. Make a pile of leaves. Let it sit. Keep it moist, or not. Over time, maybe a year or less, the leaves take on a crumbly, dark consistency. Scoop it on top of your garden soil or flowerbeds. Use the time you saved to take up a new hobby. If you want the pile to look more organized, bag the leaves and add slits for air, use a wire bin to contain them or hide them behind the garage.

Here’s one of those beautiful intersections between leaves and compost. Leaves are an excellent source of brown materials, essential to compost. Browns are rich in carbon and their compatriots, the greens, are materials like grass clippings that have a lot of nitrogen. (The materials aren’t actually these colors, but compost works best when the two are combined at the right ratio.) Other brown materials include wood chips, paper and sawdust. Other green materials are fruit and vegetable scraps, manure and flower and vegetable plants that have run their course.

Clearly, fall is a great time to start composting. The trees are offering all these wonderful resources and it’s our job to notice and take advantage of them. Thank you, trees. Shredding leaves is the most effective way to compost them. Run them over with the lawn mower and then layer them in or use a weed whacker to chop them up.

Have a lot of branches and sticks? These can be used, along with leaves, to make a wall or shelter that wildlife will use. Again, the simplest method is to pile them, but if tidiness is important, choose an area of the yard where they can be bundled out of sight.