When Your Leaves Start Falling, Don’t Bag ‘em, Shred ‘em!

By Bill Primavera

Around this time of year, I start to see large paper bags filled with leaves parked by the roadside, and I have two thoughts.

First, I regret that I no longer have the occasion to rake leaves, living as I do in a nice condo building where a whole team of people are responsible for leaf clean-up. I always considered the act of raking leaves to be therapeutic. 

Second, I say to myself, what a waste! I can’t understand why anyone would part with this rich resource in the life cycle of plant life.

I love fallen leaves of red, brown and gold. I love their look, their smell and the sound, if you listen carefully, as they fall gently from their branches to the ground.

If they are left as is, they can cause damage to your lawn by blocking light from reaching the grass and inhibiting the evaporation of water, particularly if you have a lot of oak trees whose leaves decompose slowly. They also encourage the growth of mold and/or fungus, which isn’t very friendly to grass. If you have walnut trees, that’s another problem in that they have compounds in them that actually poison other plants.

I remember one year, before I had the money to have a lawn service (yes, as a self-employed person for most of my life, I’ve been downright broke on occasion and sometimes only my own brawn has kept my household going), I just left the leaves, figuring that one year wouldn’t hurt.

Well, when the rains came, the leaves turned into a wet, matted mess that flattened and melted into the grass. And when spring came and the weather dried up, I had dozens of wet, muddy holes in my fairly decent lawn. I spent the spring getting rid of the thatch and re-seeding. That was the last fall season that I was lazy.

Then for some years, I got into composting, which became somewhat of a religion for me, although I wasn’t fanatical. I had enough property where I was able to take a corner of it, not noticeable from either my front or back lawns, and create a pile of alternating grass and leaf layers, along with daily kitchen scraps. I’d just keep the pile growing until it reached about four feet, occasionally mixing it up with a pitchfork and letting it simmer and smoke throughout the year. By spring, when I was ready to do all my planting, I had the richest compost you might imagine.

In the intervening years, my lifestyle changed radically concerning my prodigious production of leaves on my property, which at one time was heavily shaded before Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy hit.

When I no longer had time to work on a layered compost pile, I started to mulch my leaves in place on the lawn with my mower and found that to be a satisfactory solution. I suggest this to any homeowner, rather than bagging, because leaves decompose very quickly when shredded.

Organic Gardening Magazine has suggested that the best technique for mulching leaves in place is to fit your lawn mower with a blade that chops leaves and grass into small pieces, but a side-discharge mower works, too. Set to shred by setting the mower height to three inches and remove the bag. It works best to shred leaves when you can still see some grass peeking through them, and that means you may need to mow several times during the fall.

Begin mowing on the outside edge of the lawn, shooting the leaves toward the center of the yard. Mowing in this pattern allows you to mow over the leaves more than once. If the leaves are still in large pieces after you pass over them the first time, go back over the lawn at a right angle to the first cut. Finely shredded leaves filter down through the grass and decompose easily by the following spring.

If there is an overabundance of leaves on your lawn and the layer of shredded leaves seems too thick, you might want to suck them up by making more than one pass over the lawn with the mower’s bag attached. You might also mow with the bag on if you want to collect leaves for the compost pile or to use as mulch in the garden beds. It’s best to have no more than a one-inch layer of leaf mulch on lawns and a three- to four-inch layer on garden beds.

Mulched leaves return valuable micronutrients to your lawn and gardens, especially when mixed with grass clippings, and feed the microorganisms and worms that keep your soil – and your grass – healthy.

So why would you want to throw all that good health away by bagging?

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.