Gardening on the Planet, Shut Up and Dig

The bad leaf advice—it’s baaack!

My leaves are not as pretty as this.

My leaves are not as pretty as this.

It’s that time of year again—gardeners are getting silly advice from the Wildlife Federation and other nature-centric organizations about why they should try to leave their leaves in place to provide wildlife habitat and “natural mulch.” Many gardening columnists and Facebookers are picking up the NWF’s 2014 “Leave the Leaves for Wildlife” post and running with it—again. I won’t go into the reasons this is mainly BS for most gardeners, as Susan has already done a fine job with that in this post. (Suffice it to say she calls this “terrible, no-good gardening advice” and proceeds from there.)

I am among the many gardeners who do not live in natural forest environments. I have a winding, urban garden surrounded by (mainly) big maples that dump big, fat mats of never-decomposing leaves all over my property in late November. These must be removed; they smother plants and soil and won’t be any easier to get rid of in spring. So I bag them up and leave most for the city to collect for municipal compost. (There are way too many for me to compost and I’d have to shred them with machinery I do not own or want to own.) However, I do hold back a few bags. I’ve found that the big bags of leaves can be placed around vulnerable shrubs—mainly fall-budding hydrangeas—as wind protection. I think it works better than burlap or Shrub Coats—which are good products, but I often end up breaking half the branches off in the process of pulling them over the plant.

The argument has been made that municipalities spend too much money on the trucking, labor, etc. involved in a composting operation, but if they’re doing it, my leaves may as well be a part of it. I also have a friend who maintains his own bulk composting operation, and I can always bring my leaves there.

Anyway, most of my trees are planted in the city-owned easeway, so the city can have them.

Posted by on November 15, 2016 at 9:50 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Shut Up and Dig.
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13 responses to “The bad leaf advice—it’s baaack!”

  1. MattD says:

    Since I don’t have a lot of large trees on my 15yr old property … My boy and I go hunting for bagged leaves in the fall on trash night. You can get a lot of leaf bags packed into a 18year old corolla if you really want to. I then spread them on my lawn just to mulch them in. The old stares by the neighbors have subsided a bit over the years since my lawn greens up earlier in the spring.. later in the fall .. and doesn’t get watered. As the studies find… mulching 6 inches of leaves into your lawn at a time is not problem at all.

  2. Laura B says:

    I’m with you – have been having this ‘discussion’ with others on a FB group post regarding leaves (started as a leaf blower discussion).
    I, too, cannot leave my leaves. My small suburban yard is full of fruit trees and bushes as well as native/near native plants. Instead of lawn, I have decomposed granite, river cobble, and growing groundcovers. If I don’t clear the leaves, the DG and cobble will stain and become slippery messes. The groundcover will die. I compost what I can, but honestly, that’s only a fraction of what finds it’s way to my yard. I’ve even tried using the chopped leaves as mulch around plants that most needed it. What didn’t blow away is still there 3 years later (very little rain to accelerate decomp).

    I’d love to live where I have room to compost all the leaves Mother Nature graces me with. But I don’t. The City happily takes my green waste however. They use the resulting compost in city projects and give it away to residents by the truckload if they so desire. Win-win, in my book.

  3. Garden Rant Susan Harris says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, which will probably need to be done every damn year from now on. Thanks, NWF!
    In their original story they DO somewhere in the body of the text say: “A leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow.” Important qualifier? “Where trees naturally grow.” In the WOODS.

    Leaving leaves on the ground or even on the lawn AFTER they’ve been chopped up? Great. Nothing new there. It’s the simple “don’t rake” and “leave leaves on the ground” advice that’s “terrible, no-good.”

  4. Marcia says:

    I believe there has been some good positive research on the benefit of leaving the “mulched” leaves on one’s lawn, including one where up to 4x the amount of leaves of a typical woodlot was applied to part of a golf course:

    Also, if interested, Adrian Higgins wrote a nice gardening article this week:
    “November is a vital time for a successful spring bloom”

  5. Laura says:

    I am also in the ‘leave the leaves’ camp. I move them off of the crowns of most plants and away completely from plants that don’t like to be wet, like lavender and thyme. But for the rest, I let them stay all winter. They insulate the ground and keep it from freezing as fast in the fall, or thawing too fast in the spring. Something that I find many of my plants appreciate. Once I start getting busy in the garden in the spring, I put them on my compost pile, and then back to the garden they go!

  6. JodiepCook says:

    …I think an important point was left out of your post about leaves…The referenced prior article and expert advice talks almost exclusively about not smothering a lawn with a thick coating of leaves. No offense, but…duh.
    It might make sense to include your own caveat about this fact and to point out that here in the southwest, where lawns are less and less the norm, leaving the leaves as mulch while not allowing them to smother plants is a good thing!
    I agree completely with the above comments, except for one thing. Even leaves from so-called allelopathic plants haven’t caused me a problem for existing, rooted and mature plants. They inhibit seed (weed) germination and I wouldn’t put them on shallowly-rooted new plants, from 4″ pots, for example. I used to manage a public garden and liberally spread a thick mulch of shredded eucalyptus, coral tree and others considered allelopathic over our native garden (an arborist gladly delivered them to me) with absolutely no ill effects. In fact, everything thrived with the moisture being held in the soil and the leaves decomposed much more quickly over the winter than I thought they would. Underneath was rich, black, loamy soil after less than a year.

  7. Vicky says:

    I beg to AGREE completely with the “leave the leaves” committee. Of course turf grass cannot tolerate a covering of leaves but then, the folly is in trying to grow turf grass, not in keeping the leaf litter

    I had 6 mature bur oak trees on a medium size city lot and while I did not compost every one, I found that keeping chopped leaves on the perennials was just fine (for them and me) and in fact over time this improved the soil to the point that I could dig almost right after a rain and not have clumpy soil. It truly was Victory Garden soil and a dream to work in.

  8. David Mcmullin says:

    Leaves make good mulch and break down well to make good top soil. Perhaps nature knows best. I don’t let them pike too high on meadow perennials, but I know that it won’t take long for them to reduce in volume and I let them get deep around shrubs and I don’t mind them burying most woodland herbaceous plants since these plants are adapted to that system.
    I avoid certain oaks, though, like water oak, and magnolias because they take a long time to decompose and they create a shingle effect in the ground and water runs off the top and doesn’t penetrate the ground easily.
    I prefer to not chop leaves first. It’s a waste of time unless you have piles to reduce, since rain and winter will do the job for free.
    And, of course, avoid allelopathic leaves like pecan and walnut. Unless you need weed suppression. But we all need weed suppression sometimes, don’t we?

  9. David Mcmullin says:

    Be careful of those pecan leaves. Pecans are mildly allelopathic and the toxin is heaviest in the foliage. They can poison the soil in large quantities.

  10. […] The bad leaf advice—it’s baaack! originally appeared on Garden Rant on November 15, 2016. […]

  11. Charley says:

    The very best method of dealing with leaves is to just mulch them in place with the lawn mower. It may take two trips over the lawn to get them fine enough. However mine seem to compost in place in less than two weeks. When the leaf fall is heavy it may need mowing every three days or so. However that is still less work than the rake and bag approach. It also leads to a healthier soil for the lawn. Some years I have collected the bagged leaves from other lawns and mulched them into mine. I have several pin oak trees and a maple.

  12. Susan says:

    I generally shred my gazillion leaves and put them in a pile to break down for mulch and compost. This year, that effort was fast tracked because I live a quarter mile from the edge of the biggest of the North Carolina wildfires. E
    Last week, everyone in the area was cleaning gutters, clearing roofs, and removing leaves from around the houses to slow down the fires. In the fire area itself, leaves are no longer a problem. They’re all burned to ashes

  13. Laura Munoz says:

    To each his own. I’m making use of my pecan and oak leaves and those from my neighbor. While some disagree, I do think leaves can be used effectively in the garden as mulch, in compost, and as a top dressing to add nutrients to and keep moisture in bare soil.

    For people who love their lawn, I understand they don’t want leaves sitting on it. That’s fine, but I don’t care about my lawn, and I don’t care if my neighbors don’t like my leaves sitting on my lawn. (There is a fence between me and my neighbor so my leaves don’t blow into her front yard, which I would care about if it happened.) I don’t live in an HOA so there aren’t any hard and fast rules. At some point, I may remove the front lawn, which is actually minuscule and water thirsty although I never water it. (I didn’t plant it.)

    I don’t have to worry about clogging up storm drains because we don’t have any.

    If I did have heavy mat-forming leaves, I would simply compost them, but I “get” that some don’t want to do this.

    Last year, I was told by the locals that magnolia leaves would never decompose. Now that’s interesting because I laid down several bags of scavenged magnolia leaves, mixed them with mushroom compost, and presto-chango they decomposed, perhaps not immediately, but quickly enough for me.