The bad leaf advice—it’s baaack!

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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

Elizabeth Licata
on November 15, 2016 at 9:50 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Shut Up and Dig.

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10 Comments

  1. 1st November 2016 at 1:09 am —

    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.

  2. 16th November 2016 at 6:19 am —

    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.

  3. 24th November 2016 at 8:30 am —

    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.

  4. 24th November 2016 at 1:33 pm —

    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?

  5. 24th November 2016 at 1:37 pm —

    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

  6. 24th November 2016 at 1:49 pm —

    …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. 24th November 2016 at 1:51 pm —

    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!

  8. 24th November 2016 at 1:57 pm —

    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:http://ipm.missouri.edu/meg/2013/10/Want-to-reduce-waste-and-time-Try-mowing-leaves-rather-than-removal/

  9. 24th November 2016 at 2:02 pm —

    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.

  10. 25th November 2016 at 6:17 am —

    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).

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The bad leaf advice—it’s baaack!