Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody's a Critic

NWF’s terrible, no-good gardening advice goes viral

nwf leaves

Somehow, the National Wildlife Federation’s 2014 blog post “Leave the Leaves for Wildlife” has gone viral this year, and not just on the Internet. Its popular chore-relieving advice is being repeated widely on television, too.

Unfortunately, this part of the NWF’s advice hasn’t gone viral – the qualifier:

A leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow. The leaf layer is its own mini ecosystem!  (Emphasis certainly not in the original.)

So the leaf-leaving advice is about woodlands, not gardens, and certainly not lawn. And notice that the photo illustrating the post shows disembodied, out-of-context leaves, not a garden. Yet the original story ends with this misdirect:

Remember, the less time you have to spend doing the back-breaking work of raking up your leaves, the more time you have to enjoy the gorgeous fall weather outside and the wildlife visiting your garden!

And the misdirect worked, turning this forest management advice into really bad gardening advice. 

rake good h ouse

Womensday, like the Weather Channel and many other sites, repeated the NWF’s statements about benefits to wildlife and promise of less work, with no mention of the fact that this advice applies to natural areas, not actual yards. The stock photos complete the misdirect that turns the story into bad gardening advice.

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Above, another example, from Upworthy. Also spreading bad advice? Science Daily.

Yet! I found some news organizations that did some actual reporting.

An NBC affiliate in Texas asked someone local who knows something about gardening, a landscaping company owner:

East Texas’ Wilhite Landscaping owner James Wilhite said lawns should still be kept up, though.”Leaves are a very important part of our ecosystem and it’s got a place in the forest and you may have a natural area in your yard where you’d like to set up habitat,” says owner James Wilhite. “In the middle of your lawn may not be the best place for habitat for wildlife.”

Tech Times added an important caveat:

  1. Let them stay where they fall. The lawn probably would not mind if one chops the leaves using a mulching mower.

Fox in Minneapolis illustrated the story with video of people mulch-mowing their lawns and wisely mentioned fungus from too many leaves on lawn, and neighbors who may not approve of the no-raking look.

A writer for Huffington Post did an excellent job:

But admittedly, a very thick layer of dead leaves under certain conditions could harm your lawn — especially if they’ll be covered with snow all winter. Luckily, there are alternatives that are still much more environmentally friendly than chucking them in the landfill.

For one, you can turn the leaves into mulch by shredding them with a lawn mower until they’ve been chopped down into dime-size pieces and you can see the grass through them. The smaller pieces can break down more quickly, and evidence suggests they’ll help return nutrients to the soil and can even help prevent weed growth.

And the smart people at Detroit News knew enough to consult an expert!

Rebecca Finneran, a horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension, sees mulching as the way to go. Grinding up the leaves via a mower and letting the remains stay on the ground allows for the benefits of fertilization, without the dead spots in a lawn that might occur if leaves sit in place all winter.

“You pulverize the leaves into little tiny pieces,” she said. “They sift down around the turf plants and provide nutrients … It ends up being very beneficial to lawns.”

When leaves are allowed to sit during an extended period of time in the winter, they create problems for owners to deal with in the spring.

“They don’t kill the lawn, but they tend to smother patches of it out,” Finneran said.

Another strike against the Wildlife Fund’s recommendation: Heavy, wet leaves can clog storm drains, which can lead to backups and flooding. Many municipalities ask residents to help keep drains clear of leaves in the fall.

For more information on mulching, MSU Extension offers a variety of tips.

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The lesson here may be that gardeners should be wary of gardening advice from experts in something other than gardening. The author of the NWF blog post is, after all, “a naturalist, author, blogger and national media personality with National Wildlife Federation.”

More news outlets should be wary, too, and maybe next time hire an actual garden writer to do the story.

Posted by on November 13, 2015 at 9:23 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody's a Critic.
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38 responses to “NWF’s terrible, no-good gardening advice goes viral”

  1. cristina says:

    If you are a patio gardener, consider hauling ‘grey water’ instead of tap water from your apartment or house outside to your plants. Mild, diluted dish soap won’t harm your plants. Water from the bathtub is even better. Conserve!

    • anne says:

      And to that I would add the cooled-down water from your steamed veggies. Lots of nutrients there. Only caveat: outdoor plants only, as the water can stink.

  2. Hi there! I have a pretty big garden and every fall I gather all the leaves and bring them somewhere else. I know that they might be helpful for the soil as while they rot they become a natural fertilizer… the thing about that is that it isn’t really like that and keeping the leaves brings a lot of moisture, bugs and fungus that is not always healthy. Thanks for sharing!

  3. As I read the original article, I got the idea to leave woodland areas filled with leaves, but avoid leaving any on the lawn. If you want to preserve or foster a lawn, it’s better, as several people suggested here in the comments, to mulch the leaves with the lawn mower.

  4. Kristin says:

    We have a half acre of leaves, some of which go on the gardens in a four to six inch layer to offer some winter protection. I am careful to not keep leaves that may carry fungal diseases and make sure my winter blooming plants are left uncovered. The leaves on the lawn are picked up and shredded with our mulching lawnmower and bagged for use next year. I am hoping to have enough leaf mold to use to mulch the gardens in late spring before the heat comes. We went four months with no rain and it will not only add nutrients but conserve soil moisture as well. I usually have to pull back the leaf mulch that naturally falls on the garden in late January so I can see the spring bulbs. What I find is the fallen leaves bring the stellar jays to the ground and they flick the leaves in search for food. They are so fun to watch.

  5. Mary Gray says:

    What exactly is wrong with leaves in garden beds? Unless they are smothering some kind of evergreen groundcover or something, what’s the issue?

    • Susan says:

      Mary, again – go back and read my original comment. The voles like to tunnel in secrecy. I have numerous bearded iris, and in the bed I mentioned, they have riddled whole areas with tunnels. My iris rhizomes are clinging to a thin bridge of dirt – the voles have completely undermined them in places. I’m already racing against winter weather to complete my chores, and now I have to get topsoil in there to fill in the damage, which takes more time and effort. That’s what’s wrong with certain types of wildlife in garden beds. Destruction and damage that takes a lot of time and effort to remedy. And if I hadn’t found it until next spring, the entire bed would probably have to be torn out and replaced.

      • Mary Gray says:

        Yeah, if you have a specific pest problem I can see removing the leaves around certain plants. But as general advice I think letting the leaves lie in garden beds is pretty sound. I have many bearded irises that sit in leaf litter but no voles. Maybe I am just lucky.

  6. Sherrie says:

    Sorry but what a stupid, click-bait title.
    The NWF article is perfectly good, it just needs to add the incredibly obvious caveat that you insist on preserving a lawn don’t want large full in-tact leaves on your lawn on it all winter.
    And I don’t know why anybody reading the original article would think that a storm drain is a place for wildlife habitat. Give me a break.

    Leaves make AMAZING mulch. I use mine to mulch my raised garden beds, and as mulch around all of my plants on my property and not only does it keep weeds at bay better than anything but it also encourages wildlife visits to my yard (birds LOVE sifting through leaves in search of all of the bugs it brings).

    This article is based on a model that’s becoming outdated. Vast, worthless lawns and an obsessive concern about what The Joneses might think if you dared to leave a leaf behind. No, better to haul away all those nutrients and then pay for chemical replacement of what was lost, right?

    • Laura Munoz says:

      Regarding your last paragraph, I think where you live in this country makes a big difference as to whether or not you keep your leaves.

      When I lived in Austin, TX the people I knew either kept their leaves or competed for bags of leaves and Starbuck’s coffee grounds to put in their yard. I’m sure Austin still had lawns maintained by raking and chemicals to keep the lawn green, but now that I live in a smaller town, I see almost everyone HERE hires a lawn service, and the leaves are routinely hauled off without question. Maybe that’s because we have more leaves here?

      I get many of my leaves from my neighbor who runs a landscaping business. He tells me he doesn’t want the leaves on the lawn or in his garden. He mentioned he maintains his grass with “weed and feed” and hauls in commercial mulch and compost. I don’t think it’s my place to try to change him either.

  7. Yolanda Vanveen says:

    It would be great if the lawn industry concentrated on sustainable tips like adding compost and reseeding instead of attacking sustainable information – there is room for both lawns and wildlife gardens. The sad part is those that try to defame sustainable information are so obviously sponsored to do so by the non-sustainable industry. I had hoped things had changed in the last ten years so hope in time all industries can work together for sustainability. The lawn industry sees the NWF as a threat with all these wildlife garden tips. It would be much more advantageous to encourage eco friendly lawn care companies instead. They will be the only ones remaining in ten years.

  8. Sandra Knauf says:

    The NWF does not care about lawns, they care about wildlife, and what fosters wildlife – healthy soil and plants. Picture-perfect lawns are detrimental to both, not to mention all the other ills that come with the great American lawn. (But we know that, right?) In places where we don’t have a lot of moisture, like Colorado, or huge trees everywhere, leaves are fantastic in the lawn-free garden! They provide nutrients, they provide mulch which helps retain moisture, and they provide wildlife with all the things the article mentioned.

  9. Susan says:

    No one has mentioned one of the worst things about letting leaves collect all over your property – it provides perfect cover for the damn voles. I just finally had the chance to clean up a large bed in front of my house last week (I live on a corner lot and get an accumulation of leaves from across the road), and the voles have run rampant. Many of my bearded iris have been completely undermined by their tunneling, and one even went scampering off when I uncovered an area! We do use a mulching mower on the lawn, but I don’t have time to shred leaves for the beds, and leaving them invites havoc. I rake those puppies up and get them the hell off my property before I go in for the winter!

    • Mary Gray says:

      Are voles not considered wildlife?

      • Susan says:

        Yes, Mary, voles certainly ARE wildlife – and as long as they stay out in the field behind the house or even on the lawn, I can peacefully coexist. But I get well and truly honked off when they destroy my flower beds. And they do their damage under the cover of all those leaves.

  10. commonweeder says:

    It would only take one winter of leaf covered lawn to show what bad advice this is. Leaves are a valuable resource and one of the things I do with leaves, besides putting them in the compost bin is making cold compost beds. I take a length of 3-4 ft high wire fencing and make a circle (or what ever shape I might need) to fill with leaves. I can fill it with leaves several times over the course of the fall because they start to break down almost immediately, especially if there is rain or if I water the leaves. In the spring this leaf bed with have broken down even further so I try to have another pile of leaves that I can add to this one and use it as a planting bed. I make an indentation in the packed leaves and after adding a quart or so of soil I can plant vegetable or flower starts. They do very well! No weeds, but you do need to keep this relatively airy bed watered. This kind of raised bed saves the planting from neighborhood dogs, and also makes gardening a little easier.

  11. I’m loving your advice. Making life easier and smart.

  12. Mary Apodaca says:

    In my vocabulary:

    There’s yard (space I own around my house) broken down into
    1. lawn (grass)
    2. garden (flower and veggie beds, non-grass).

    Maybe that was the problem with the article’s author(s).

  13. Yolanda Vanveen says:

    I think they were addressing wildlife gardens not lawns – they didn’t even mention lawns. It is a great time to add compost to bad spots in your lawn and reseed right now – the NWF is a great organization and all about sustainable gardening. Everyone should garden naturally and certify their garden not lawn :) Please garden naturally and certify your garden with the National Wildlife Foundation! http://www.nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife/Create-a-Habitat.aspx

  14. The forest most certainly DOES NOT have a leaf layer several inches thick. They are all down now. I doubt it is even half an inch thick. There may be a humus layer two inches thick at best if you are lucky.

    The only way a woodland will get a several inch thick leaf layer is from the wind or a gardener putting them there.

    In a normal forest, the fallen leaves are pretty much decomposed and gone by July. I know. I garden in a forest and don’t rake leaves at all. Come spring though I will pull the leaves off some plants.

  15. Bev Wagar says:

    This is a classic example of narrow-minded, literalist, black-or-white thinking.

    Let’s think about what might happen if you DON”T rake the leaves off the lawn.
    1. maybe the wind comes up and blows them into the fenceline, the garden, the neighbour’s garden– many places that are off the lawn
    2. maybe it rains and the leaves end up staying on the lawn. Then it snows or freezes or whatever. In the spring the leaves might still be there. There might be some patches of dead grass

    So, best case– there is no harm done. Leaf mulch happens.
    Worst case–you need to re-seed some areas in the spring. Next fall you go back to raking, bagging them, and getting rid of them.

    Maybe you decide to put a little garden or a tree in that bare patch. Maybe you decide that the lawn is not that important. Maybe you really enjoyed the time you saved not raking leaves– playing with your kids, working on your hobby, spending time with your spouse, or doing any number of far more worthwhile things.

    But lets look at the bigger picture. In North America we spend a huge amount of time on lawn care– mowing, dethatching, fertilizing, weeding, seeding, watering, aerating, more mowing. The environmental consequences of all those two-stroke engines and industrial/chemical production are huge. The lawn care industry depends on what amounts to a collective obsession that wastes water, energy, and time. And, to the extent that all the raked-up leaves end up in landfills, a big waste of leaves. Leaves are Nature’s fertilizer and one of many sources of the organic matter that makes up healthy soil.

    The NWF’s advice stands firmly against this fossilized1950s aesthetic that brought every war veteran a bit closer to the landed gentry: a little “estate” in the suburbs, complete with “grounds”, and a “groundskeeper”, who happened to be the estate owner. And a new highly profitable–but absurd–industry was born.

    Let’s stop nit-picking, shall we? Changing the dominant lawn-adoring mindset is a huge task. The NSF author is not wrong– she’s an idealist. We really SHOULD let the leaves be. In a perfect world we would encourage wildlife and biodiversity and soil health and we wouldn’t obsess over pristine lawns. So cut some slack here. It’s a huge monolith and the NWF is pushing hard.

    • Laura Munoz says:

      No, no, no, Bev! Don’t encourage people to keep their leaves. If everyone keeps their leaves, I won’t have enough for my new garden. They are MINE, MINE, MINE! (Insert crazy, maniacal laugh here.)

  16. John Hric says:

    I left the leaves where they fell. Into my compost pile. Like they have fallen for many a year. After I have raked them. What is so back breaking about raking? I particularly enjoyed the conflicting comments – about insects over wintering in the leaves ( somewhat true ) and the shred the leaves and mulch the grass (oops were there overwintering insects in those leaves ? ! ? ! ) GRASS the 5 letter version of the 4 letter word LAWN. Don’t have one. There is a small area of mixed naturally diversified plants that makes excellent pathways between the garden beds. However it is not and never will be a LAWN. And before being trimmed to the winter height it does a fair job of capturing leaves prior to raking. There was one good point to the article – leaves can be good. Keep them and use them.

  17. marcia says:

    Hey Susan,

    I’m going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt as he did say, “a leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow.”

    Personally, I rake the leaves on my lawn into large piles, mow them, then rake into a pile for use the following September. I will rake some from under the trees as the wind will just blow them on the lawn.

    The problem? The neighbors who do nothing and then the leaves blow all over my lawn. I talked to them in the past and told them I would mulch their leaves because they end up on my lawn.

    They’ve said, “fine.” More work for me, but heck, we have a big problem in the U.S.:
    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/854459

  18. Leaving a pile on your lawn is not a good idea for all the reasons you pointed out. You mention Michigan State University. They did an extensive study on the benifits of mulching lawn leaves to reduce dandelions and green up the lawn in the spring. Some specifics can be found here: http://thefarmgardenblog.com/2015/11/07/mulching-leaves-reduces-dandelions-in-lawns/ But mulching is the key word. Thanks for looking at this with a critical eye.

  19. connie kuramoto says:

    Leaving the leaves under shrubs and in vegetable and flower beds helps drought proof your garden and build good soil. It creates excellent habitat for beneficial insects. . Get rid of your lawn. Lawns are a waste of space. Grow food or native plants instead. I have been teaching Horticulture for over thirty years and I think this is great advise not bad advise. Leaving soil bare to the elements is bad advise.

  20. I am fortunate to have a lot of trees in my area and am able to grab as many as I need. Although I like to shred them up first to get the process of breaking down going. Leaves are great to add to any garden.

  21. Many of the trees we like to grow evolved in the woods/forests where leaves are left to rot- and soils in such habitats are often more fungus rich. For healthy trees a food source for these preferred soil biota buddies- the fungus’- is needed.
    So yes leaves are usually good for trees and often not the best- especially too thick- for turf.

  22. Eliz. says:

    I have seen this crap everywhere. If I left my leaves where they fall, I wouldn’t have a garden. It would be like some kind of lifeless prehistoric bog.

  23. Tim Hewett says:

    Really bad advice for lawn, ponds or flower beds. In my small woodland area I don’t clear leaves but everywhere else clear them up. However do not burn or landfill them leaf compost is easy if slow and very good for the garden.

  24. Marilyn Carothers says:

    This matter gardener agrees. Leaves can go in the garden all mulched up, but don’t leave them in any thickness on the lawn. Yes tiny bits are great, just not in any thickness.

  25. Julie says:

    In the wake of this, the concept of mulching your leaves gained some attention, which I love. There is even a study that mulching your leaves significantly reduces dandelions. An article on the dandelions was published in my local Extension newsletter, I have requested a link since my internet search didn’t find it.

  26. […] like I can go out there and have a conversation with the leaves or pick through the pupae! But a fellow garden writer really had her doubts, especially since when quoted by media, the original post had been taken out of context. Better […]

  27. Laura Munoz says:

    Gosh, I’ve been using leaves in my garden for years without problems including leaves that people say don’t break down quickly. As you mentioned, I’ve used them as mulch to keep the weeds out of my perennial beds and to protect those tender perennials in cold winters. I’ve used them in the compost pile. I’ve also raked them around the smaller under-story trees to provide nutrients. I grab the bags of leaves that everyone puts by the curb whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    Of course I never cared about a lawn (unlike the norm). I didn’t want a lawn, and I had the grasses that came with my former property (some native and some not native) when we bought it.–I did not pay to install grass, and the soil was never touched by a builder/developer.

    At my new-used home, I have a tiny St. Augustine lawn in the front, which I plan to replace completely with perennials and a huge backyard where I plan to create an equally big cottage garden.

    I guess if grass is your focus or your neighbors have issues with your leaves, then leaves could be your enemy, but for gardeners who don’t care about a conventional lawn and can go without one, I don’t think they’re bad at all. I plan to continue to grab those bags by the curb whenever I see them, and I’ll put them to good use.

    • I do the exact same thing =) When I see bags of leaves by the side of the road, I send hubby out to pack them up. Good thing we drive an old mini van or the sliminess might get the vehicle icky, Ha.

      I love leaves! Truly. This was an enjoyable read. Thanks. Very timely too since we are in the midst of raking reason.

  28. Dave says:

    Yep. This issue has been my personal red Starbucks cup. Thanks for posting this!