Lawn Culture Trumps Gardening Culture


RedtreesThe only time of year that you’ll see my neighbors out in quantities working up tremendous sweats in the their yards is the time that is coming to a full-stop now with our first hard frosts: leaf-raking time.

Everybody works so damned hard, too, getting every last curled-up maple leaf out of their flower and shrub beds.  And when they finally hang up their rakes and drag their bags and garbage pails of leaves to the curb in exhausted triumph, the ground they leave behind is utterly denuded.  It makes me shiver, just looking at those pathetic little euonymus and hemerocallis that are expected to head off into winter butt-naked and unprotected.

Of course, it’s not news to Garden Rant readers that this is insane behavior.  Fallen leaves are nature’s gift to the soil, as well as significant worm-fodder, as Amy Stewart would tell you.  Like any mulch, they will keep the frost from heaving plants out of the ground, a great killer of fall-planted things in my part of the world.  It takes me only a few minutes to rake the leaves from my city yard into my flower beds.  The usual recommendation is to chop up big leaves with a power mower first.  I don’t even bother with this step and still have had zero problems with rot and smotherment in my sandy soil. 

But my neighbors are in the grips of lawn culture, and gardening culture is completely alien to them.  Everything they know about God, nature, and the cycle of life they learned from Scotts, and matted leaves will kill that fussy ground cover called grass.  So they assume it’s good for everything to scour their beds clean of tree-products and sanitize the landscape before winter.

It makes me sad to see the leaves wasted, but they are not really wasted.  My city composts them and sells the stuff back to those people who gave it away.  The waste that really bothers me here is the wasted sweat.  If my neighbors worked themselves up into a lather planting tulips instead, well, my fair city would really look like something.


  1. People generally freak me out year-round. But you are correct… leaf season makes ’em weirder.

    I like my lawns and my gardens. I do what you do. Leaves on grass into gardens. Perfect.

    Nice post.

  2. I do the same thing, rake the leaves into the beds, sometimes chopped, sometimes not. And I agree with you….it just looks weird and sad after everyone strips their yards. Although, what I always think with people who are going crazy with either their leaves, or their lawns, or both, is–don’t they have anything better to do???

    Maybe that’s just me 🙂

  3. It’s all about potty training folks. And about eating every bit of food on our plates because there are starving children somewhere on the planet. A thoroughly raked lawn gives people the idea that they’re neat and tidy, just like mom and dad told them to be.

  4. Okay, I think the choir needs a contrary note here.
    Without the magically sandy soil that Michele has, I wouldn’t risk smothering my perennials and groundcover with unshredded leaves. So how to shred them? A mulching mower with bag sounds fine (assuming it’s electric) but the Toro blower-vac recommended in the link here – well, I recently referred to them as “godawful” and I stand by that.
    What I do this time of year is remove 90-95 of the leaves from my entire garden (not picking out ever last one) and pile them up in the woods. The next fall I use it as mulch in my raked-up borders. Because I never turn my leaf pile, it doesn’t decompose completely or evenly, but it’s close enough; the soil and worms love it, I’m sure.
    But besides fear of smothering, there are other reasons for my seemingly obsessive cleaning of my borders in the fall: because I like to be able to SEE everything. So after removing the loose leaves I do all sorts of repairs and amendments – like weeding, like trimming, like correcting the grade here and there. (I guess that could all be done before the leaves fall but early fall is such a busy time, I never get around to it.)
    And one more reason is that I’d rather see the nice green groundcover all winter than dead leaves. I’m a gardener; I like looking at plants that are alive; so shoot me.
    Well, that’s how it works in my garden but I have questions about how it works for everybody who rakes leaves INTO their borders. Like don’t they just blow out onto your lawn all winter? And even in spring the leaves are still there, covering up everything, right? How do you ever see what’s going on? Discuss among yourselves.

  5. Okay, preferring to see green groundcover in winter is a dead giveaway, Susan–you garden in a warmish climate!

    In upstate New York, we have feet of snow-cover in a normal winter. We’re not looking at nuthin between December and April, except possibly a hellebore leaf or two poking up through melting snow on a warm day. And putting the perennials to bed underneath a cozy smattering of leaves doesn’t seem dangerous in the frozen north–it seems merely humane. By spring, the leaves have broken down somewhat, and I just throw a pine-bark mulch on top of them.

  6. I’ve never had a major problem with the leaves blowing back onto the lawn all winter (not that I care if they do) because first the rain in October/November, then the snow in December thru February pretty much keep them in place. They break down pretty well over the winter, and it’s easy for me to see what’s coming up. And, like Michele said, I’d rather look at leaves (between snowfalls) than bare dirt. We have crazy freeze/thaw action here, and I honestly think my leaves keep my plants protected from that whole cycle. Not scientific, but I haven’t lost a plant yet.

  7. My husband takes the wheelbarrow and gets the leaves the neighbors raked to the curb. He uses them all in the vegetable garden.

    I wish our neighbors raked leaves, though. I’m tired of listening to leaf blowers on every nice afternoon!

  8. Last two years I did not rake – this year I did. Only because the leaf piles were so high and there was nothing but a foot deep sea of brown everwhere. It was just too depressing to leave that covering up my hellebores, pansies, and winter interest items.

  9. I compromised — raked most (not all) of the leaves off the grass, and got ‘good enough’ out of the gardens. Leaves that were left got covered by composted manure or mulch, and if there seemed to be a lot, I crushed them first.

    There’s more to the leaf thing than just matting, at least for me — Norway maple leaves cover a hellish number of Norway maple keys, which are then protected through the winter so they can sprout wherever they landed. Squirrels and raking take care of a lot of them, but I found and pulled at least a dozen seedlings lurking beneath the rhodies in the front yard.

    I also found quite a few garden slugs alive and eating things even after some hard frosts (night temps in the 20s) because they rented space in the leaf layers.

    Still, I have to agree about the raking thing — it’s insane. Not everyone on my street has a lawn you can eat off, but a few neighbors rake as though it’s a rug that needs cleaning, not plants that can be pulled up by the roots.

  10. I don’t have enough leaves to bother with raking. I just mow over them.

    Growing up, my Dad collected every leaf in our yard and we helped him “double dig” them into the vegetable garden. (We were cheap labor!) That garden plot still has some of the richest soil I know of through the constant addition of organic matter.

    Leave your leaves on the lawn, rake them into the beds, or put them in a compost bin, do anything with your leaves except let them be taken off with the trash!

  11. I have six giant live oaks in my yard – so my leaves come in the spring (something I’ve yet to fully get used to, even after 10 years!). But I’ve never carted a bag of leaves off my acre – they mulch the azaleas and camellias, the vegetable and perennial beds – I even now stop along the side of the road and pick-up other people’s bags of leaves and bring them back home (if the place looks like they don’t use alot of lawn chemicals – it’s pretty easy to tell). I fail to understand why people cart off organic matter only to go and buy some. Craziness. (Oh – I meant to chime in on the leaf blower thing – to me, they’re like a snow mobile in the north or a jet ski down here…horribly annoying if you’re not the one playing (using) them. My dad gave me a pretty high-powered echo gasoline powered leaf mower for my birthday last year, and I must confess that I’ve fallen in love.

  12. Personally, I am quite glad people are foolish enough to bag their leaves: it makes for nice nabbings for my own gardens, as our mostly-coniferous land doesn’t produce nearly enough of ’em for my (perceived) needs. I’ll bet I brought home a good 75 bags over a three-week period. And no, I wasn’t too concerned about pesticides, as I grabbed leaves and not mulched grass/leaves.

    But yes, it’ll be a cold day in a hot place before the world sees lawns the way you do, Michele. Keep ranting.

  13. I’m one of those who lives in a warmish climate, and I have to say that fallen leaves here can be more of a curse than a blessing. It may very well be true that in your area the land really could use the leaves in the form that they fell in, but that’s not true everywhere.

    I have laceleaf maples that shed practically pre-composted leaves politely at their own feet, and have built-in cages formed from branch tips that brush the ground, keeping all debris in high, fluffy piles that do not encourage pests. They get to keep their natural mulch.

    Then I have sweetgums with big, flat leaves that make nice, tight dense layers which suffocate everything I put under them — I can’t count the number of hostas, bulbs, subshrubs and native berry plants that have failed under the weight of those massive, heavy leaf layers. I don’t bother with bark mulch on that side of the house anymore because those sweetgum leaves are the best plant killers around. And slugs love them. And mice. And rats.

    Oh, and they constantly blow onto the sidewalk and into the street. I have to sweep (and clear two storm drain covers) once a week, every week, Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall to qualify as a good citizen and neighbor. I’ve had it.

    I was trying to be good by letting the trees mulch themselves, but clearly what they do in the wild is not what I need in my urban landscape. I won’t cut them down, so from this year forward I will studiously rake up my leaves (and dump them into mulch piles for a year before putting them back out to do the work I need them to do).

    And if my mostly-conifer and evergreen-shrub neighbors roll their eyes at what they consider to be OCD-level fastidiousness, I will be secure in the knowledge that I don’t give a damn what they think.

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