Leaf me alone!



After Susan’s leaf blower post a while back, we heard from friend of Rant Terry Ettinger. Turns out he is also an enemy of leaf blowers and discarding leaves as trash, and has a piece in a recent Fine Gardening urging gardeners to lightly mow their leaves where they lay, so that they can enrich the soil, whether they have fallen on grass or on perennial beds. Or, he suggests, the leaves could be raked into wire enclosures, where, with a few additions, they would transform themselves into compost. Or they could be used for sheet composting on annual beds, where they would be shredded with the mower, enriched with some light fertilizer, and turned and watered regularly.

I find these ideas very interesting, and love the whole notion of making lemonade out of the yearly deluge of leaf matter. Fall foliage is generally considered a nuisance once it’s off the tree. I know my neighbor is out with her broom every morning, sweeping it up; sometimes I think she’s got a hidden camera pointed at the trees, and it’s able to discern which leaves fall from the trees on her side and which come from my trees. Those she sweeps over to our property. (God, I wish I was kidding.)

I have a few caveats with all this. If the leaves are raked up and composted in a composter, that seems equally beneficial, for those of us who don’t care to wait until they decompose naturally. Sadly, not all leaves are created equal, and when heavy maple leaves fall on dense ground cover, they’re not going to decompose any time soon. I think I still have leaves from a year ago sitting behind some shrubs in the front.

And while I agree wholeheartedly that the idea of leaves going into a landfill is tragic, our city is finally starting a municipal composting program. If that helps raise awareness about using compost for those who still think garden nourishment comes out of a bottle of Scotts, then I like the idea of the city picking up the leave sand composting them.

So, it’s a more complex issue for urban gardeners or gardeners like me, with no grass and evergreen ground cover. Still, I agree that the time for the average gardener to think of fall leaves as something other than a bane of their existence has definitely come.

ADDENDUM: My bad! I had not read Susan’s article on leaf removal when I posted or I would have thrown her thoughts into the mix. Do read it; it adds another dimension to this important and fascinating topic.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Besides my own leaves, I have 2 sons and one friend collecting theirs for me. I use them in my compost, as a winter cover, and I experimented with using them shredded as a mulch for my perennial beds this past growing season. I learned some things using them as mulch.
    First, it has to be a windless spring day when spreading them – hard to come by where I live. Second, if the bed is out in the open, I needed to add grass clippings on top to keep them in place.
    Thirdly, if you get the layer thick enough (at least 2″ compacted) it works great. Water gets through but not weeds.

  2. See the first link in the post below to my article on this subject. It includes this advice from my town’s city gardener: “An impenetrable mat of leaves, especially from oaks, can smother groundcovers and keep rainwater from penetrating into the soil.” He recommends shredding leaves first before using them in borders.

    And lawn expert Paul Tukey, who lives in Maine, told me he’s “no fan” of mowing leaves and leaving them on top of turfgrass. Says he’s seen the practice result in winter kill under snow.

  3. Muncicipal leaf collection and composting is a wonderful idea, and I think it would work easily for any town that already collects bagged leaves. In my columns I recommend Cold Compost. Make a wire fencing frame,using stakes and something like chicken wire. It can be any size, placed conveniently in your yard. Then start filling it with any kind of leaves. They will start breaking down almost immediately and you’ll be able to fit an amazing number of bags of leaves in even a fairly small frame. The frame keeps them from blowing around. In the spring you can dig them into the soil, or use them as mulch. You can even plant right in the leaves. The man who taught me this, Larry Lightner, made spot gardens. In one he made indentations in the leaves, added a little garden soil and planted herb plants, while around the outside perimeter he planted his tomatoes, tying them up to the stakes.

  4. I have long known the benefits of leaves. Although my property is full of mature trees, I never seem to have enough leaves, so many years I resort to stealing leaves. I keep a tarp and garden gloves in the trunk of my car. Whenever I see a bag of leaves sitting on the curb, I stop and pick them up. One year I brought home 96 bags.

  5. As someone who has access to city leaf mulch I can tell you it is one of the most wonderful creations on the planet. The city, the parks dept. and our botanic garden started this program a few years ago and it has turned into a very successful fundraiser for the gardens and a way to deal with urban leaves. They are now offering leaf mulch for sale in October (every Thursday bulk only so you need a pickup truck or a big car trunk). In the spring you can buy bagged or bulk. If anyone is in a position to help jumpstart a program like this, I can tell you it works.

  6. I gather up maple leaves into leafbags, poke a few holes in teh bags and put into the bagged leaves planters with plants that have to stay out all winter in Z5b, for instance bulbs and a potted clematis. The bagged leaves provide excellent insulation. I also use the bagged leaves for insulation around small shrubs that might be damaged by our heavy snow fall. It seems to have been very successful and in the spring I continue to use the bags to insulate planters of tender seedlings. By the following fall even maple leaves are turning into compost after providing insulation for a year.

    I do use some maple leaves as mulch too, they give protection until the snow comes and are not hard to lift off in the spring when they have become a sodden matt.

  7. We were told to pick up ALL of our leaves and get rid of them or burn them. We left them last winter and just mowed over them. Now all of our leaves on our trees have some black spot disease on them. When we looked it up it says it’s from leaving the leaves on the ground and said to prevent it to always remove leaves that fall from the trees in the winter…

  8. I use the fallen oak leaves as heavy insulating mulch on several of my more tender tropical plants.
    Bananas and Brugmansias receive a thick leafy blanket of leaves up around their trunks. As winter continues I throw a bag of chicken manure around the thick blankets and by spring time I rake the decompose compost jacket smooth into enriched top soil.
    The rest of the fallen oak leaves are raked into a corner into a pile. As the winter rains come I throw a bag of chicken manure into the heap and turn the whole pile over a couple of times.
    By Feb or March I have almost enough compost to top dress my gardening beds.

  9. We’ve been chopping our oak leaves for over twenty years and using them in the fern/wild flower garden. It’s the only rich black soil in our Alabama rock/clay yard.

  10. I found Susan’s article much more helpful. Thanks to her previous writings on leaf collection, I got a wire bin setup last year. We have maple leaves to deal with, and what I found was that even though we “filled” the bins to the top, the leaves quickly decomposed to about a third of their original volume, and I wouldn’t have had enough mulch for a single bed. So I incorporated them into the compost bin late this summer.

    Last year I got a late start, so this year I’m planning to really pack the leaves in with some leftover potting soil from containers and see if we can avoid buying leaf bags entirely.

    I don’t like the idea of raking maple leaves into piles in the beds because they tend to hide and protect maple keys, which are already a problem. I spend entire days weeding out maple seedlings every spring as it is.

    On a side note, we gardeners with reel mowers invite Terry to come over and “lightly mow” our now-twice-rained-on leaves.

    But if he gets anywhere near the perennial beds, we’re going to chase him with the compost fork.

  11. Taking advantage of your community’s greenwaste program rather than sending yard trash to a landfill is a great idea, but not as effective as composting on site. This just came up with my husband when discussing increasing our composting area. He didn’t see the point, since the excess was carried away to be composted by the county.

    What he didn’t realize was that our greenwaste is not handled locally, but trucked to an adjacent county for composting, than returned to ours for sale and/or used in municipal projects – not as friendly from a carbon footprint standpoint.

    Additionally, municipal composting sites may be under pressure to move compost out in order to make room for new raw material deliveries, so don’t necessarily have time to let the process work fully.

    Just goes to show, even when someone (like my husband) is trying to do something right, some smart ass (like me) will point out another way that’s righter.

  12. Great point, Elizabeth. Generalizing about the benefit of leaving all leaves on the lawn or in the flower beds just doesn’t work. It depends. I like your idea of lifting them and making compost in another location, if that’s what works best for you.

    I’m not a fan of leaf blowers and never used one in my old garden. But I’m seriously considering getting one for the new place. The live oaks drop innumerable leaves, twigs, and acorns into the agaves that I brought with me, and I don’t know any other way to get all that moisture-trapping stuff out than to blow it out. You could argue that agaves don’t belong under live oaks, but it’s my garden and I want them there. 🙂

  13. As Pam says, it depends.

    Here in Central Texas I use a mulching mower to chop most of the Arizona Ash leaves in place in the front yard but put the bag on the mower for the pecan leaves in the back. They go into a wire enclosure and very gradually sink down. In early spring any dropped pecan hulls can go in the wire enclosure and in late spring I mow up all the dropped pecan flowers and throw them in there, too. Pecans are not a tree for the neat gardener.

    My dozens and dozens of containers stay outdoors all year in this climate and they do not like to be smothered. Rakes can’t get leaves out of the containers and brooms can’t fit around them. We set our electric leaf blower to reverse so it sucks up leaves from the plants and tight spaces around the house and patio. It not only sucks them up, but also chops them and puts them into a bag so they can be dumped into the wire enclosure.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  14. I’ve posted this before, but here goes again! My wonderful county vacuums the leaves from this very leafy county, shreds them, composts them, and then will either deliver 5 cubic yards of them to your garden for the cost of the truck ($17.00 this year) or leave them in big bins at various places around the county where you can pick them up yourself for free. I have just finished spreading the results on my garden beds, and then topped them with white pine needles from my very large white pine. Result — a very pretty and tailored beige look for the winter perennial beds, plus in the spring it smells like the beach when I start to grub around in there.

    I also have a blower/vacuum/shredder which I use to get out the leaves that stick in the ground cover, and then I put the shredded leaves back in the beds to compost down during the winter. Sorry it’s an electric machine, but I’m 71 years old and I need all the help I can get at this point.

    I am thinking of a worm box also, but I hesitate because I don’t know how easy/hard they are to deal with.

  15. First, thank you Elizabeth for sharing my thoughts regarding leaves and lawns with Garden Ranters everywhere.

    There are a couple of reasons that I’ve begun this “crusade” against (most) municipal collection of leaves.

    The first is that it’s estimated to cost between $100 and $200 per truckload (labor, benefits, fuel, wear and tear, opportunity, etc.) for municipalities to collect, transport, process (compost), and disperse leaves. Here in Syracuse, New York where the resources of the entire DPW are committed almost around the clock for a solid month between Halloween and Thanksgiving to collecting one and two THOUSAND truckloads of leaves, that adds up to serious money – i.e., our tax dollars.

    Second, considering all of the payloaders and dumptrucks traversing city streets and idling while waiting for a load all day, every day for the better part of a month, we’re talking about some serious consumption of fuel.

    When you start multiplying the amount of money spent, and the amount of fuel consumed in communities across the country to collect leaves, it’s enough to make this gardener’s stomach churn!

    Fortunately, Dr. Thomas Nikolai (Michigan State University), Dr. Zac Reicher (Purdue University), Dr. Marty Petrovic (Cornell University), and others have been researching the pros and cons of mulching leaves into lawns (up to nearly 100 pounds per 1,000 square feet which is way more than a typical woodlot will drop in a season) for the better part of twenty years. All of their work has led to the same conclusion – regardless of tree species, when shredded once or twice a week throughout the fall, leaves ultimately improve the quality of turf over time.

    Meanwhile, I suppose a thick mat of leaves can kill some groundcovers? However, since 1992 (the last year I mowed a blade of grass), the leaves dropping from the large trees in front of our home has failed to kill a wide range of dry shade-tolerant groundcovers.

    Also, when walking through the beautiful oak, maple and beech forests of upstate New York in early spring, it seems that the trillium, troutlilies, bloodroot, blue cohosh, twinflower, massive patches of vinca/periwinkle that mark long-abandoned farmhouses, etc., somehow manage to struggle up through the leaves the elves forgot to rake up the previous autumn;-)

    If you just can’t resist the lure of getting out there and picking out every last leaf the drops into your groundcovers, you can save yourself some time in the future by spreading fruit tree netting over your bed(s) in September. Then, after the last of leaves have dropped, simply pull up the netting, and drag the leaves to your compost pile, or dig them into your vegetable garden – please don’t set them out at the curb to be hauled “away” as trash!

  16. If these comments show anything it’s how different everyone’s situation is and how mileage varies drastically from situation to situation. Rosella, I have an electric leaf vacuum/shredder too and I love it!

  17. Terry, fruit netting? Are you kidding? There is no way I am going to deface my highly visible front garden with anything like that in September, which is such a lovely time of year here. This just proves my point that there are lots of great solutions out there, but there are also lots of situations where those solutions simply won’t work–
    One thing’s clear: none of our commenters here are putting leaves out as trash, so whatever the process, we have a happy ending.

  18. Granted, netting isn’t an option for mixed beds containing plants of varying heights.

    However, I’ll bet there are a whole bunch of readers that have large beds/monostands of vinca, ivy, pachysandra, or similar cover under large shade trees where the netting really would be almost invisible.

  19. I’ve considered netting as an easy way to remove leaves from my new anti-lawn of sedum acre, but after fiddling with some of the stuff I realize that leaves get stuck in it and create a big mess instead of happily falling from the netting.

    So, I’m back to wondering how to remove leaves from the sedum – I guess with a rake, but more gently than on turfgrass.

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