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Raking Leaves

Bag vs. Mulch and Compost

Fall leaf cleanup: mulch or rake?

It's an annual task most homeowners don't relish: leaf clean-up. The trees that provide such beauty during spring, summer and fall eventually drop their foliage, relegating homeowners with tree-lined properties to a dusty, dirty chore. While you can let the leaves pile up in some natural areas, it's inadvisable to let a layer of dead leaves build up on your lawn, or you risk killing the grass, perhaps for good.

You're left with two choices: Use your mower to mulch the leaves into the lawn where they break down naturally, or rake or blow them into piles and figure out a way to dispose of them. There are pros and cons of each method. Read on for the advantages and disadvantages of both techniques, and select the leaf-removal method that best suits your needs.

Mulch them in

Mulching leaves directly into the lawn by mowing over them may be the simpler of the two methods, and it's certainly something to consider if you dread the thought of raking.

Done on a regular basis, mulching leaves into the turf has no detrimental effects on the grass and helps to boost soil quality.

Use caution, however. You want to avoid leaving a thick layer of leaves on the lawn, which can increase the chance for turf fungal diseases or block out too much sunlight, essentially smothering the grass. According to The Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, if a layer of leaves greater than one-fourth to three-eights inch builds up on your lawn at one time, it's time to think about bagging them. In addition, mulching doesn't work as well for pine needles; they don't break down easily into the soil.

Try to mow over the leaves every four days, or whenever they get thick enough to shade out the grass. The drier the leaves are when you mow them, the easier it will be to chop them into fine pieces.

While it's not a necessity, a mulching mower makes the job easier. Mulching mowers are designed to shred and re-shred clippings and leaves finely, allowing them to fall down into the lawn and break down more easily than coarsely chopped materials. A traditional side-discharge mower without a mulching feature may not thoroughly chop the leaves, causing them to clump and suffocate portions of the lawn or require repeated passes with the mower.

Advantages to mulching leaves:

  • Reduces effort
  • May increase the quality of the soil
  • May be cheaper (no costs for extra fuel, labor or disposal)

Disadvantages to mulching:

  • May smother grass if leaves pile up too quickly, especially when wet
  • May require more frequent mowing
  • May require a mulching mower
  • May not work if you have a lot of pine trees

Pile them high

Of course, there are many reasons to consider raking or blowing leaves into piles. You may prefer to collect the leaves for your compost pile, or you may just like the look of a completely leaf-free lawn. In addition, if the leaves come down too fast for you to keep up with the mulching, it's time to get out the rake or power blower.

If you have a power blower, you can make quick work of the leaves in your yard by spreading out a tarp and simply blowing the leaves onto the tarp for collection.

If you have a compost pile, collected leaves can be a good source of the “brown” material needed for backyard composting. According to Delaware Extension specialists, proper composting depends on a mix of carbon-rich materials (commonly referred to as ";brown"; or dry materials) and nitrogen-rich materials (referred to as “green” or fresh materials, like grass clippings). As a general rule, they recommend two parts green material to one part brown to promote the best decomposition of the materials. You can use the resulting compost as a beneficial soil amendment in plant beds and other areas.

There are also some disadvantages to the "pile it high" method. Raking leaves, while good exercise, can be a time-consuming, blister-inducing chore.

Power blowers can be noisy and costly to run and maintain. Plan ahead. Speak to your neighbors about the best time of day to use your power blower. No one likes to sleep late on weekend mornings only to be rudely awoken by the noisy power blower next door. Late afternoon or early evening might be better for everyone.

Getting the leaves from the pile into a bag is usually no fun, and you still have to worry about where you are going to put the leaves after you collect them.

Advantages of collecting leaves:

  • Provides brown matter for the compost pile
  • May give the lawn a “cleaner” appearance
  • May be a better solution in areas with many pine trees

Disadvantages of collecting leaves:

  • Can be more labor-intensive
  • Can be more expensive, for plastic bags and fuel
  • Some localities do not provide leaf pickup
  • Some localities do not allow for leaves to be disposed of in the landfill

When it comes to your lawn, you may have to try both techniques to see what works best for you. Or, consider using a combination of these autumn clean-up methods depending on the time of year, weather and conditions in your yard.

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