Can you name one of the most financially wasteful and environmentally harmful landscape practices that is common to our area? Or in reverse, do you know of a landscape practice that can be embraced by the most fiscal conservative and the most liberal environmentalist?
The answer to the first question is leaf removal. The answer to the second question is the ‘Love ‘em and Leave ‘em’ approach to leaf management.
So as leaves are turning different shades of red, orange, and gold, and beginning to fall from the trees, let’s explore how to manage them in a way that turns leaves from an expense into an asset.
Solid waste removal is a very large expense for most municipalities which is 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 leaves and provide leaf mulch to residents, there is still a huge cost to removal, including:
- 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 leaves, or paying someone else to do it.
Leaves are referred to “leaf litter” once they fall on the ground; however, all good gardeners and environmentalists know this is poor word selection because of the immense value that fallen leaves provide, such as:
- 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 fallen leaves. 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 fallen leaves as a source of water to drink. 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 will be greener for longer and trees and shrubs will be 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’
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 thing to do with leaves is to leave them in place, especially in areas with garden beds.
In areas with lawn, too many leaves may damage grass, so in those instances, we recommend mulching leaves in place. This simply means mowing over leaves until they are small enough to be unnoticeable. This can be done by mowing over them several times, but a more efficient method is achieved by attaching a mulching blade to your existing mower. Mulching blades can be purchased to fit both residential and commercial sized mowers, so if you have a lawn service, see if that option is available.
On some properties, we combine the above 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, reduce the time and expense of fall leaf removal while improving the environment, and then convince your municipality to institute a “Love ‘em and leave ‘em” approach to leaf maintenance.
For more information:
Love Em’ and Leave Em’ New York
Recycling Leaves- UDel Cooperative Extension
Upper Chichester Township Recycling Final Report from Solid Waste Association of North America