Leaf Removal Tips: Should I Mulch or Remove?
As the summer comes to an end, the growing season for the trees around our lawn also ends. As our trees begin enter dormancy for the rest of the year, their leaves begin to change colors and mark the beginning of fall. Soon after, they build up in our lawns and we’re left with the annual task of leaf removal.
There are two schools of thought when considering leaf removal: mulch them into your lawn when mowing where they'll break down naturally into the soil or pile them up and find a place to dispose of them. There's another option available to some that goes with the "piling" method: haul them to the curb and let your city/municipality collect them. Like many decisions, there are pros and cons to both leaf removal methods and you’ll need to decide which your lawn will benefit from the most.
While this may be the easier of the two methods, it’s not without challenges. When mulching leaves with your mower, you’re left with a layer of grass clippings and leaves that naturally break down into the soil. When performed regularly, this will help boost the soil quality and won’t have any detrimental effects on the grass. You’ll need to pay attention to the depth of the layer of chopped up leaves and grass clippings; if this layer becomes too thick you run the risk of promoting fungal diseases in the turf or blocking out the much needed sunlight. According to The Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, you want to maintain less than 1/4” – 3/8” of leaf build-up on your lawn at any one time. If this layer is thicker than that you’ll want to consider bagging and removing the leaf and grass debris to avoid potential fungal disease and/or smothering your lawn. It’s important to note that mulching doesn’t work well with pine needles; these won’t break down into the soil as well.
It isn’t required but we advise the use of a lawn mower equipped with either a mulching kit or a mower that is using replacement mulching blades. These kits and blades are designed to cut and continue cutting the grass and leaf debris, helping it fall into the lawn easier to be broken down naturally. Standard lawn mowers equipped with standard blades might not cut the grass and leaves as finely, leaving clumps in the lawn which can suffocate parts of your lawn. You’ll typically need to cut with repeated passes with a standard mower to cut the grass and leaves fine enough to not damage your lawn.
Typically this method reduces the amount of effort used to clear leaves from your lawn. It has the potential to raise the quality of your soil as well as possibly being cheaper, as you won’t be paying for additional fuel for other power equipment and won’t need to spend as much time doing yard work.
This technique can smother your grass if not carefully monitored, especially in wet conditions. Depending on your mower and the volume of leaves falling, you may have to mow more frequently to keep up. If most of the trees around you are pines, this technique won’t work for you as pine needles don’t decompose into the soil as easily.
Removing leaves by either raking or blowing them into piles has its benefits, especially for people who prefer to collect their leaves for their compost piles and those who choose to mulch but can’t keep up with the volume of leaves falling into their yard. When you can't see your grass anymore, it’s time to pull out the rake or leaf blower and fight back!
If you have a leaf blower, it’s easy to make quick work of leaf removal. Spread out a tarp or other movable flat surface you don’t mind dirtying up and start blowing the leaves into a pile onto the tarp.
For those who have a compost pile, collected leaves are a great source of the “brown” material needed for backyard composting. Composting depends on a mix of carbon-rich or “brown” material and nitrogen-rich materials referred to as “green “ or fresh materials. Your lawn can be a great source for both and you can use the resulting compost as a beneficial organic soil additive in your plant beds or other areas of your lawn.
These dried leaves provide a great source of “brown” matter for composting. Depending on how frequently you remove leaves from your lawn it can provide a “cleaner” appearance. If you have a lot of pine trees in your area it may be a more suitable option than trying to mulch.
Removing leaves with a rake or leaf blower is more labor intensive and will require more time spent in the yard. It can be more expensive since you’ll need to pay for bags for leaf collection as well as fuel for your leaf blower. Some localities don’t provide leaf pickup and some don’t allow leaves to be disposed of in the landfill.
Talk to your neighbors and find out how they solve their leaf cleanup issues. If the majority of your neighbors are pushing their leaves out on the curb, that's a good sign that your municipality has a regular leaf pickup available. Most start sending out flyers and publishing information in the local newspaper a few weeks before the first pickup. If your area is more rural and doesn't supply leaf removal, you'll want to figure out the best option for leaf cleanup. Trial and error is a good way to start -- why not try out both methods and see what works best for your lawn or use a combination of both methods depending on the time of year, weather and conditions in your area!