If you DO remove them, what next?
Part 2 of the Great Leaf Debate. Part 1 covered “Should you remove dead leaves?”
If you’ve decided to do something positive with your dead leaves (as opposed to, say, sending them off to the landfill) there are not one but TWO terrific things you can do with all that organic matter.
Chop them with mower and use them as mulch
We’ve already covered why leaving whole leaves in your flower beds may not be the best choice (and on lawns it’s definitely not). When my local email-group discussed all the options one member posted this exhaustive list of reasons to chop those leaves:
- It speeds decomposition of organic material
- It returns carbon back to the natural landscape cycle
- It reduces turf damage/thinning from smothering leaf deposits
- It reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in landscape beds
- In managed woodland areas, it reduces leaf mats that can smother native herbaceous plants
The writer then anticipated a possible objection to all this chopping: “If there is a concern for using petroleum-based fuels for tools, use electric powered tools wherever possible.”
And sure enough, several others rose to object to the “considerable polluting aspects of gas lawnmowers,” one even suggesting that electric mowers are not an option because they’re so expensive (really?) so she uses and teaches her landscape clients to use a “hand mower”. Presumably that means a reel mower and even the manufacturers of reel mowers don’t claim that they do a good job chopping up leaves. See how complicated this all is?
Compost them yourself
Leaves definitely contribute to some mighty fine homemade compost, especially if you combine it with some green matter like lawn clippings for a nutritionally complete result. But composting whole leaves? It’s what I do but the result isn’t exactly that black gold we’re always looking for. My compost method (such as it is) is to simply pile the leaves up and wait a year or more for them to decompose. The problem is they never DO decompose completely because I never water or turn the pile. (Breaking all rules, I know, but turning is hard work.) But no matter – I use the resulting so-so “compost”, containing some noticeably uncomposted chunks, in out-of-the-way spots, or as a soil amendment.
But if you want to turn dead leaves into quality compost it’s definitely better to chop the leaves first, and I did that for a whole season a few years back. I bought a cheap filament-style shredder for about 100 bucks and ran all my leaves through it. (About 50 deciduous trees drop their leaves on my property, so think about the quantity of leaves we’re dealing with here!) But because it was a cheap, flimsy machine, the Weedwacker-type filament broke with every twig and acorn it encountered. So about every five minutes I had to stop and replace the filament and the chopping process became a super headache. If I’d spent more on a chipper-shredder it would have gone quickly, but I judged $1,000+ to be too steep a price for faster, more uniform compost.
Another option would have been to spread all the leaves on the lawn, then mow with a mulching mower (one with a bag that collects the chopped leaves). Sounds like a whole lot of work to me.
Yet here’s a report from a local composter who’s having a much better experience: “I am a layperson about composting but I hand-rake leaves at our office (Anacostia Watershed Society) and wet them using a watering can to give them extra weight so that leaves are not blown away by winds. (You can skip the wetting process if you rake leaves just after a rainfall event.) I don’t mechanically shred them. Last fall (2008) I used this method and our horticulturist said it was good leaf compost. No electricity needed. Good exercise. I didn’t use money for visiting a gym. It takes about 10 months to make good leaf compost.”