Ranting about Dead Leaf Advice


I'm handing out advice and arguing with some experts (would you believe the revered Barbara Damrosch?) – and on a corporate blog, no less.  I know plenty of GardenRant readers (and writers?) will disagree with me but go ahead; I can take it.  After 4+ years here, we've all grown thicker skin.

Photo credit.


  1. Well I agree with EVERYTHING you said, and it isn’t often I agree with everything ANYBODY says (though I will try and disagree nicely and try and be agreeable somehow). I also have horrible leaves that won’t lightly and gently filter through my shrubs and perennials (6 sycamore and 2 liquidambar on a small suburban corner lot), and just letting them sit would mean that muchl of the groundcover layer that keep my soil moist and free of weeds would die.
    So be argumentative – we all garden in different ways and most of them are right!

  2. Mine are all taken away–to be composted by the city. I do a few in my tumbler but it is limited. There is absolutely no way that they would decay in place. Maybe in 10 years.

    My urban front garden and patio are not the forest. What works there will not work for me.

  3. I love how these people with large country properties act as though what they do with leaves will work for everybody. But I am sure a lot of things I swear by would be unfeasible for many other gardeners.

  4. I’m just glad to hear someone say it’s ok to “compost” by piling stuff up and letting it sit for a year. That’s my method, too, and for the same reason. Works just fine, so long as you’re not in a hurry.

  5. I still find this dramatic collapse of biomass unsettling and continue to search for my zen with leaf rearrangement at the end of Autumn. Here in the forest we do absolutely nothing. Maybe come spring some of the weaker perennials may get the top coating of leaves swiped off.

    For one client, a major neat freak all the leaves are removed. I even get inside the crowns of large shrubs and pull them out. I did say neat freak. These leaves are dumped back into the surrounding forest. I acquiesce to this because they mulch yearly.

    For another client I rake leaves directly into portions of the beds used for annual displays or that contain large shrub borders. I find they do decompose within the year, but there are no oaks and I hide the Sycamore in the back where it doesn’t matter. The leaves in this garden are just added to the beds in addition to regular mulching.

    In a couple of other gardens the front yard leaves are raked to the curb and sucked up by the city.

    Every garden is different even in the same climate zone. Maybe there is no dead leaf zen.

  6. One thing I’ve noticed on my own property is that if I stop mowing my grass by the second week of Sept. in my northeastern Z6, the leaves will do no damage to my turf when left in place. If you use this method you can at least reduce your leaf removal to a single exercise when the leaves have finished dropping. I actually wait for spring to do this but others would probably act in Nov.

    I manage home and estate orchards for a living and lots of my customers treat their lawns more fastidiously then I treat my living room floor. They mow and blow at least once a week- often through Nov.

    The obnoxious and toxic cacophony of blowers and mowers are a constant assault on the senses and the environment in the wealthy neighborhoods where I make my living. I’m glad I don’t live in Greenwich!

  7. Susan, your article in the corporate blog you link to above is the best and most comprehensive article I’ve seen on what do do with your autumn leaves. And I’ve written one myself! Thanks for writing this important article and getting the word out. Nice job as always.

  8. I’ve been pontificating about how to handle leaves for over 25 years and of course I assume every gem of information I gleefully offer is the truth and nothing but the truth. My problem with your blog is that you say and believe in everything I say and believe in. How can two opinionated writers get so close together on what is clearly an off the wall topic for most homeowners.
    Barbara does lots of things normal people with real lives would not accept; that is her right.
    Leaves are God’s gift to homeowners who are lucky enough to have trees. She gives us the material to fix and then maintain all the soil on our property; all we have to do is a bit of processing here and there and the rest goes on to the passive compost pile for use in a few years, just before cocktail hour. Good job Susan. Your story is classic and you should stick to it. Thanks.

  9. This topic always gets everyone going – I love it! And I’ll add, from comments over on the Mahoney’s blog, a couple of good points.

    One comment was that leaf litter helps some critters overwinter, but I think the leaves I do let stay in my borders, esp at the back around shrubs but not on top of groundcovers, provide that service. Also, about half my garden is all-woods, where I don’t rake at all.

    Another commenter asked if I was aware that most of a tree’s nutritional needs are supplied by those leaves and I said yes, indeedy, and I believe they get a hefty portion of leaf nutrients from the leafmold mulch I put around them at least once a year.

  10. How big is the carbon footprint left behind by cities picking leaves from private property? This is a complete waste of taxpayer money. Since when is it the responsibilty of the city to remove leaves from YOUR BACKYARD?
    GIMME GIMME GIMME but don’t raise my taxes and don’t take away my services. Are their not a lot of community gardens in these cities that could benefit from the leaves for mulching or compost?


  11. Me, I worry about butterflies. A great many, including the slowly declining luna moths and their relatives, overwinter as chrysalises under fallen leaves. We take the leaves to the incinerator, and that’s the end of those butterflies, which means that if the gardener has gone out of their way to ATTRACT butterflies to their garden, with the best intentions in the word, they’ve created an ecological sink…sort of like putting out a birdfeeder and then letting the cat kill most of the birds.

    Raking the leaves to under trees or shrubs,leaving them in place until mid-spring and then composting them…frankly ANYTHING other than burning them or hauling them away for the city to destroy…saves butterflies.

  12. Just this past weekend I tackled the front garden and all the leaves. I hate bagging them even though my town does compost them – what’s the carbon footprint of all those brown leaf bags?. I trimmed back some of the perennials and tidied the beds so I could blow some of the leaves and raked the large piles onto the lawn. I had a huge pile – I actually thought too big but I ran the lawn mower (set on highest setting) over them (I had to tip it up to stop it clogging) eventually ending in decreasing circles with the chopped leaves being blown into a quite manageable pile. Then I put the chopped leaves back on the borders as mulch. Yes, I used some gasoline and yes, I created some noise for a while but everything was put back to good use. They break down over the year, keeping moisture in and slowly composting down and they keep the weeds down in the beds. I’ve tried just raking leaves onto the beds but they catch the wind too much and blow around, chopping them up makes them stay on the beds.
    In the back garden, I’m less fussy -mowing/mulching the leaves from the middle of the grass area outwards directly onto the borders as I do the last mow of the year. I don’t like to leave the chopped leaves on the lawn unless it’s a very thin layer and I have too many white oaks and norway maples on the 1/4 acre property to be able to do that.
    Thanks for the note on butterflies – I had a lot of late parsleyworms this year (on the parsley) and I read that they can overwinter as chrysalis so I’ll just leave the leaves in the veg garden where they were.

  13. Since Winter here is marked by many bouts of high winds & no snow cover, moving fallen leaves is a must. Most of my neighbors dump them into the green waste containers for the city to compost.
    My leaves – and as many as I can gather from the neighbors – are raked into piles by my kids & their friends, then vacuumed by my Craftsman vacuum mulcher. It does a fantastic (though noisy) job of clearing lawn, bark, even DG of leaves. The resulting mulch is spread as deep as possible around blueberries and idle garden beds. Even in the areas I prefer to be more forest-like, I’ll suck up the leaves just to get them chopped up, then return them to their original spot.

  14. It all boils down to the words : ” It depends”.
    Different approaches for different climates and types of gardens.
    Left to rot fallen leaves or even mulching with copious amounts of fallen leaves on a mediterranean succulent garden during the winter will render you a dead soggy fungus filled mess. Succulents turn to black mush under the blanket of wet leaves.
    My front garden is planted with perennials and a vegetable garden.
    That is where the composted leaves go after they have fully decomposed.
    I rake, shred and add layers of chicken compost to several mounds of leaves and by spring the mound is 2/3 the size and ready to be used as a rich dark brown top dressing or organic soil amendment.

  15. When I was a kid, I recall my dad would pile a bunch of leaves in the back of the pickup truck (we lived in the country), head down the street to where there were no houses, drop the tailgate, and hit the gas. It was so much fun watching the leaves get caught by the wind and cover the sky like a thousand red and yellow butterflies. In hindsight, I have no idea why we did this, but it was fun at the time.

    I had just posted today on my own blog about mulching with leaves (http://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-gardening-tips/mulch-types-how-to…) and I had to update it and link to this blog post because it was just so darned sensible! It can be tough for me to fit everything into 500 words and so sometimes things get left out, but you’re right, here I was praising leaves when it is possible to have too many leaves and it’s important to remember one size doesn’t fit all. Thanks.

  16. if people weren’t nice enough to rake, bag, and put their leaves on the curb, i wouldn’t be able to get my leaves “to go.”

    i have a very small yard, but i compost in 2 compost tumblers, and use 6-8 big bags of leaves in year. my tree provides maybe only one of those bags. it does seem silly to dispose of all those good carbons, though.

  17. My solution to the leaf on the beds thing is to chop the leaves either with a borrowed shredder or the bag mower, dump them on the bed to heavily (they will compact when wet) and let it sit until it snows and gets them soggy. Then, I go out with blood meal around the beginning of January and start chucking handfuls of the stuff on the beds. By May or so, it’s all turned to leaf mold goodness and the plants are going bananas.

  18. We do all those things with our leaves and have always had good results. We have a shredding leaf vacuum, and I use the shredded leaves in our compost, as layers in building garden beds and in 4″-thick mulch in our garden paths to suppress weeds. We also vacuum up our neighbors’ leaves; it’s a win-win. 🙂

  19. Funny, I missed where Barbara Damrosch was “arguing” with you.

    You can disagree with her advice all you like, but it takes two people to have an argument.

    Otherwise, I think it’s called “name dropping for link traffic.”

  20. Gargoyle, here’s the passage where I quote Damrosch and then disagree:

    Barbara Damrosch writes that “Most ground covers…benefit from a weed-smothering leaf mulch – once winter has matted it down a bit – and will come up happily in spring. I let leaves collect in perennial flower beds, too, removing them carefully with a narrow, springy metal rake just before spring bulbs poke up. They can be gathered for the compost pile.” But Barbara, how come they smother just the weeds and not the desirable plants, your groundcovers?

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