The Smart Gardener's Guide to Leaf Removal

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May 27, 2015 | Laura Firszt

Beachbums3/flickrOkay, so you didn't make it in time for your town's leaf pickup ... er, pickups ... last fall. Then they scheduled another round of leaf removal early this spring. Uh-huh. You missed that one too. Don't beat yourself up about it, though. Far from being a failure, you are actually a very smart gardener. If only you knew the value of leftover dead leaves!

Dead Leaves = Mulch, AKA Garden Goodness

Nature's "trash" is a gardener's treasure. And old fallen leaves can be very useful to your garden indeed, if you turn them into mulch. What is mulch, you say? Glad you asked. An all-purpose term, mulch is defined as anything used to cover your lawn or other cultivated area in order to benefit plantings. Mulch encourages and sustains growth by:

  • Safeguarding plants' root systems from wide temperature fluctuations, extremes of both cold and heat
  • Minimizing moisture evaporation to make for more efficient watering
  • Inhibiting the growth of weeds
  • Deterring certain insect pests
  • Preventing soil erosion, crusting, and compaction

It's a simple matter to turn small quantities of dead leaves into mulch. Just go over them with your lawn mower, preferably a mulching mower. (If you do this in spring, allow the leaves some time to dry out for easier mulching.) Mowing the same batch twice will chop them up finer. Then leave them on top of the soil to work their magic. Should you have a very thick layer of leaves, though, you might end up smothering the plants underneath, so you'll need to move on to Plan B.

Too Much Mulch? Compost!

Yes, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. If your property boasts a large number of mature trees, your yard may be overcrowded with fallen foliage. In this case, pile your pulverized leaves in a corner, with the help of a rake and some elbow grease or, alternatively, a power shredder/vacuum. Either leave them there to decompose on their own or, even better, incorporate them into your compost.

Dry tree leaves are considered brown material and should be mixed with green compost ingredients such as fresh grass clippings. A hearty helping of manure (1 part poop to every 5 parts of chopped leaves) will help along the process of decomposition, as will the addition of nitrogen-rich matter like kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. Turn leaf-based compost frequently to promote faster breakdown. (A nifty device called a compost aerator can accomplish the same thing with less wear and tear on your back muscles.)

Can't Cope? Here's What to Do (and What NOT to Do)

For some people, mulching or composting may be too much of a physical effort. If you fall into that category, you might try offering your fallen leaves to a gardening-buff neighbor. And if they already have plenty of their own, most landscaping contractors include leaf removal on their list of professional services.

Be warned that there are two big no-no's when it comes to leaf removal. First, do NOT burn them, no matter how much you enjoyed the sight and scent of a leafy bonfire when you were a child. Burning leaves is actually against the law in many communities. It hurts the environment in several ways: by contributing to global warming, by producing smoke which contains toxic chemicals and gases, and by adding to the risk of forest fires and out-of-control blazes that could destroy private property.

Second, do not put leaves into your city garbage, even if your locality permits. They take up a huge amount of space in our country's landfills, which are overcrowded as it is.

Laura Firszt writes for

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