Fall Leaves: Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em

Jennifer NicholsField Notes

How we manage leaves is one of the most financially wasteful and environmentally harmful landscape practices common to our area. But done well, ecological leaf management can be embraced by fiscal conservatives and passionate environmentalists alike.

The answer is the ‘Love ‘em and Leave ‘em’ approach to leaf management.

So, as leaves turn different shades of red, orange, and gold, and fall from the trees, learn how to manage them in ways that turn them from an expense into an asset.

The costs

Solid waste removal is a very large expense for most municipalities. This cost is then passed along as a tax burden to residents. For example, in 2010, it was estimated in Upper Chichester Township, Delaware County that municipal waste processing costs for leaves alone would exceed $174,000, or about $25 per household. And that was after someone hauled them to the curb! In some municipalities, yard debris makes up to 50% of the solid waste that goes into landfills. Even in municipalities that compost and provide leaf mulch to residents, there are still huge costs, including:

A large landscape crew blows leaves into piles on a grassy property.
David Long / The Autumn round-up
  • Fossil fuel use
  • Air, noise, and water pollution
  • Equipment costs
  • Labor costs
  • Costs of mulch needed to replace removed leaves

Homeowners too know the cost of leaf removal, whether it is spending fall weekends hauling them, or paying someone else to do it.

 The benefits

Leaves are referred to “leaf litter” once they fall on the ground. This is poor word selection because of the immense value that they provide. So groups like the Xerces Society are working to educate the public about their benefits.

Leave the Leaves is an initiative of the Xerces Society that aims to protect invertebrates from the harms of leave removal
Leave the Leaves is an initiative of the Xerces Society
  • Food and shelter – In addition to many animals and organisms eating them, insects such as fireflies, lady bugs, and butterflies lay eggs on and overwinter in leaf litter. Birds scratch around in the leaves to find these hidden treats, while salamanders, toads and other animals hide in this ground layer and use it for insulation in the winter months.
  • Moisture retention – Many animals are small enough to use the water that pools in leaf litter. In addition, leaves keep moisture in the soil by providing a barrier to evaporation.
  • Soil improvements – As leaves break down, they provide important organic material for the soil. This allows for better soil structure, allows water to percolate into the soil, and reduces the need for fertilizer.
  • Healthy plants – Grass stays greener for longer and trees and shrubs are healthier with more nutrients in the soil.
  • Natural mulch – Leaves provide a natural layer of mulch, regulating temperature, reducing erosion, and improving plant health.

 ‘Love ‘em and Leave ‘em’

Some municipalities are already initiating these strategies. Westchester County, New York has initiated an environmental and cost-saving initiative to leaf management called ‘Love ‘em and Leave ‘em’. We can follow their example and treat leaves like an asset.

By far the easiest way to do this is to leave them in place and skip leaf removal altogether. Garden beds, edges of properties, and most grassy areas are fine with some leaf coverage. What is left in these areas will simply break down over time and become next year’s mulch.

Bloodroot is growing through a carpet of fallen leaves.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming in a bed of leaves

In areas with lawn, too many leaves may damage grass, so in those instances, mulch leaves in place. This simply means mowing over them until they are small. Mow over them several times, or attach a mulching blade to your mower and do it once. Purchase mulching blades to fit your mower, or if you have a lawn service, see if that option is available.

Or combine the techniques of leaving them and chopping them, by removing large amounts of leaves from beds and turf, chopping them, and then putting them back in the beds as mulch.

So try this practice at home to reduce the time and expense of fall leaf removal while improving the environment. Then convince your municipality to institute a “Love ‘em and leave ‘em” approach to leaf management. And as always, contact us if you need help!