Roots and Shoots: The November Garden

Leafy lawn

Leaves on the lawn are beautiful, too. (Photo by P. Doan)

As I listened to the leaf blowers run for hours to get my neighbor’s lawn as empty as a concert hall in 2020, I pondered for the 37th year of my life why people care about leaves on lawns so much.

I don’t have the answer and Pennsylvania doesn’t have a ballot count yet as I write this. But maybe there is something in that connection that has to do with controlling the outdoors and making things feel controlled when they’re not. 

A yard I pass frequently has never had a flower, shrub, tree or weed growing in its unbroken acre of lawn. I have made the same joke about how the people who live there must have had a traumatic incident with a daffodil so many times that my husband doesn’t even hear it anymore. It is tidy, a smooth expanse of green, weekly mown regardless of growth, and imparts a lockdown on flora and fauna. 

My personality as displayed by my yard to passersby must look like disorder and underachieving. But overly ambitious can be mistaken for underachieving when it’s misunderstood. Everything has a purpose; it’s just that you don’t see it unless you see an ecosystem instead of a yard. That’s what happens with overly ambitious gardening. I quit my illusions of controlling nature. My role is facilitator and nurturer. I am here to help the landscape thrive, with diversity and justice for all. 

Leaves are one of nature’s ways of showing us we aren’t in control. They fall off our trees year after year and don’t care where they land or what you do with them. I’ve read a statistic that an acre of trees drops up to 2 tons of leaves each year. Even well-intentioned gardeners understandably have dilemmas about what to do with them all. Here’s a breakdown of different approaches. 

Leave the leaves 

This is a public awareness campaign and approach to the landscape that strives to reduce the noise and environmental pollution of gas-powered tools like leaf blowers and preserve habitat for overwintering insects and amphibians. Research shows that fallen leaves in home landscapes play an important role in the survival of many pollinators, such as butterflies and moths. The mites, spiders and other insects that hide out in there are also food for birds and other wildlife. More than 40 million acres of clean-swept lawns in America contribute to their losses. 

Grass won’t die during the winter if leaves cover it. It’s dormant. Studies show that leaf cover can actually improve lawns. Mulch leaves into the lawn by running a lawn mower over it and leaving the shredded pieces to decompose or leave the leaves where they land on the lawn. 

Where ticks are a concern, make paths through the yard to walk and pass through with less risk. You can also leave a border or other area of the yard that isn’t frequented as often with leaf cover if you aren’t comfortable with the entire yard being leaf-strewn. 

Leaf mulch

Shredded leaves make great mulch in flowerbeds. They will decompose and add organic matter to the soil over time and protect the soil and plant roots from the heave and thaw cycle during winter. The key here is “shredded.” Whole leaves break down slower but can still be left in flowerbeds and pulled back in late winter. Think of plants in a forest. They sprout every season without help from humans with leaf blowers or rakes. Perennials will find their way. 

Leaf piles 

Leaves can be pulled into an area of the yard and left to decompose. In a year or so, they will break down into a rich source of carbon for your compost, garden or flowerbeds. Apply directly in the spring or fall. 

This leaf mold is a rich source of calcium and magnesium. Mixing leaves with a nitrogen source will speed up the process. A pile doesn’t need to be covered but that will also break it down faster. 

Where to clear

Get up on the roof and clean the gutters. Sweep or rake leaves from paths or other hard surfaces where they can be slippery. Keep window wells and home exhausts clear. Leaves collected on wood surfaces hold moisture and can contribute to rot. The commonality here is all things not part of nature need to be maintained. 

Enjoy your messy yard and remember: it’s not underachieving, it’s overly ambitious. 

3 thoughts on “Roots and Shoots: The November Garden

  1. Thank you Pamela Doan for your excellent column. I wholeheartedly agree with the holistic view of yard maintenance. My little hayfield of clover, milkweed, daffodils and other native weeds teems with life. Maybe a little more underachieving could actually help the natural world and improve our quality of life.

    When it comes to leaf blowers, my slogan is, “Rake it, not racket.” Or maybe, “Just leaf it!”

  2. Thank you, Pamela Doan, for asking why people seem to care so much about leaves on their lawns. Even if we ignore the environmental and health negatives of leaf blowers, the intrusion of these polluting machines into our lives is huge. The noise pollution is incessant and inescapable, even on Sundays.

    Do we need a local ordinance to secure some peace and quiet? In my mind it is a sad commentary that consideration and regard for one’s neighbors have become values that may have to be legislated.

  3. I agree about the overuse of leaf blowers. I have neighbors who seem to like to mow the lawn, whack the weeds and blow every single leaf off their patio at dinner time. In the village, we live close together and, with more and more people working from home, it is important to open your eyes, look around and decide if you need to mow your lawn for the third time in one week.

    I have had conversations about this behavior, but nothing changes. Creating ordinances is one way to go but may end up creating feuds that could make any neighborhood more toxic. That said, we all deserve peace and quiet. If there is a need for an ordinance, I will feel compelled to support it, sadly so.