The following article appeared in the Glen Rock Gazette last Friday and can be viewed on the North Jersey newspapers website. Search that site or google.com for more articles in my Backyard Environmentalist series.
There’s a new way of thinking about the suburban environment, and it has to do with all those leaves we blow, rake, and cart out to the curbside every autumn. In Bedford and Irvington, New York, in Madison, Wisconsin, in San Antonio, Texas, and many other places, homeowners are being told to Leave the Leaves. The idea is very simple: Instead of spending precious tax dollars to collect fallen leaves, local governments ask homeowners to recycle them right on their properties. This is simple to do, saves money, and helps the environment, because those leaves replace many of the fertilizers homeowners regularly add to their lawns.
The idea behind Leave the Leaves is simple and scientifically sound: think of your property as a sustainable ecosystem. In other words, as in a forest, the leaves produced on your property are recycled back into the ecosystem there. In a forest, as plants or parts of plants (leaves) die and break down, they fall to the ground, where they serve several important ecological roles. Autumn’s blanket of fallen leaves first insulates the soil from sudden changes in temperature, and later, as the leaves break down naturally, they release nutrients into the soil, fertilizing it and improving drainage and soil structure. What grows in the forest stays in the forest. The forest feeds and sustains itself.
Now translate this idea to your property: Suppose that, instead of carting away grass clippings and fallen leaves, or paying someone to do it for you, you keep them, and they serve as natural mulch and fertilizer. Supplying nutrients in this natural form is superior to spreading fertilizer, because it not only replenishes the soil; it improves the structure of the underlying soil as well. Unlike the chemical fertilizers you buy, organic material actually improves the soil over time.
This idea is simple, economical, and environmentally powerful. And here’s what you have to do to carry it out:
1. Buy a mulching mower, use the mulching attachment you already have, or ask your garden service to mulch the leaves when they mow. In the autumn, as the leaves fall on the lawn, wait for a layer about 6 inches deep to accumulate, and then go over them with a mulching mower. Depending on the number and type of trees that shed leaves on to your property, you will probably have to do this two or three times during the season. Once the leaves are chopped into small pieces, air and water can penetrate to the lawn below, and the leaves will break down quickly. As they decompose, they add nutrients back into your lawn—nutrients you usually add in the form of fertilizer.
And note that you can use the mulching mower in the same way for the entire growing season: as you mow, allow the grass clippings to remain on the lawn instead of collecting them. This is all the fertilizer your lawn ever needs.
2. Allow the leaves that fall under your shrubs and perennial beds to remain in place. There’s no need to rake them away. They are free winter mulch for your plants. They will insulate the soil against sudden temperature changes and provide organic matter as they break down. If you usually add mulch each year, you will need much less. Think about it: are you paying someone to rake the ground clean and then paying them again to add mulch? That’s wasted money times two. Leave the leaves instead.
3. Save a quantity of leaves for composting. This step is optional, but it’s a great idea. If you grow vegetables, even a few tomato plants, I strongly urge you to consider making your own compost. All you need is leaves. (Leaves alone, or leaves plus kitchen scraps and weeds, make great compost, but kitchen scraps and weeds alone make slimy, smelly muck, not rich, brown, crumbly compost.) We have a large backyard, and instead of chopping the leaves that fall there, we rake or blow those leaves into a pile along the side of our property. All year long, I add them to my compost as necessary.
Google the phrase “leave the leaves,” and you’ll see the idea popping up on web sites and in newspapers all over the country. Let’s bring it to Bergen County.
This large Norway maple tree on my property will drop gazillions of leaves in the fall. I’ll turn all of them into compost for next year’s vegetable garden.