Savannah Valley District

Leave the Leaves!

Janet Steele, Area Forestry & Wildlife Agent

It is that time of year again – football games, trips to the mountains to pick apples and see the pretty fall colors, making plans to gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, and the hum of leaf blowers. While the first activities on this list are a lot of fun and make fall memorable, blowing or raking leaves and stuffing them into bags to go to the landfill isn’t usually how homeowners like to spend their time. So, let’s consider why we rake leaves and send them off to the landfill and look at a few other options that can benefit your landscape.

Removing leaves and other unwanted tree and shrub debris from the landscape and gardens isn’t a new concept. The oldest wooden-tined rakes date back to about 1,000 BC in China. Gardeners for centuries in the United States used homemade rakes, usually made from natural materials like wood or bamboo, to maintain vegetable patches and flowerbeds. As American cities boomed, so did maintained yards. The first U.S. patent for a garden rake was in 1874, and the metal leaf rake was patented in 1926. However, extensive lawns of turf grass did not become popular until the spread of cities into suburban areas in the mid-1900s. These became a status symbol of prosperity, replacing the traditional swept yard of dirt so common in rural areas, especially in the south. Molded plastic leaf rakes were patented in the 1970s, and many homeowners today don’t have at least one rake in their garage or shed.

In 2018, the EPA estimated that 7% of municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal across the U.S. was yard trimmings, which include leaves, grass clippings, and tree debris. Over 10 million tons of organic matter were added to landfills that year. Decomposition under anaerobic conditions usually begins within a year of landfill disposal, producing methane gas. Plus, yard debris takes up space within a landfill that could be used for non-recyclable items.  Fortunately, many municipalities are beginning to provide compositing of yard trimmings or require that yard debris be collected in paper or other bio-degradable bags.

The bulk of the fall leaves homeowners need to collect and dispose of come from deciduous hardwood trees. The average 60-year-old hardwood will produce over 3,500 pounds of leaves during that lifetime, which contain about 70% of the nutrients it has taken up. When these leaves accumulate in heavy mats on top of maintained turf grass in a yard, they can damage a lawn. But there are several options for what can be done with the leaves instead of bagging them for MSW disposal.

Scattered leaves from small trees or widely spaced trees can be mowed over with a mulching blade once a week and allowed to stay in place. As the leaves break down throughout the winter, they return nutrients to the lawn, acting as a natural fertilizer. But if leaf accumulation is to the point that the leaves are beginning to form a dense layer that will become a heavy mat with winter rain, the leaves will need to be removed from the lawn. Homeowners still have several options for the leaves.

Leaves can be used as a natural mulch in flower beds.  A layer of leaves, particularly those that have been mulched, can serve as a weed barrier, hold moisture in the flowerbed soil, protect perennial plants and shrubs from potential damage during severe freezes and fertilize the beds. Leaves also make an excellent soil amendment. Following partial decomposition in a compost bin or a pile, the leaves can be added to clay soils to improve aeration and to sandy soils to increase moisture retention. As the leaves continue to decay in the soil, they add organic matter that fertilizes the soil and feeds micro-organisms. Finally, leaves can be blown or moved into wooded areas of the landscape.  Leaf litter provides a habitat for overwintering of important pollinator species, other invertebrates, reptiles, and small mammals.  Leave the leaves!

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