Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fall Cleanup--Turning Over A New Leaf

Our gardens here at Juniper Hill are completely surrounded by woodland which means that at this time of year I am practically swimming in a sea of fallen leaves. And, at a time when there are so many other end-of-season gardening chores to attend to, there are only so many hours one can devote to raking.  After all, there has to be a little time left over for other important fall pursuits like trying to figure out why we are paying all that money for 350 cable channels but will face yet another long winter with nothing to watch.  That's why, wherever possible, I try to rely on mulching rather than raking.

Clean off shrubs and in between plants with a small shrub rake.
Have you ever noticed that autumn winds always seem to blow leaves toward perennial and shrub beds, where they inevitably get caught up all around the plants, rather than away from them? What's up with that, anyway?  That's why the first step in our fall leaf cleanup process is to use a small shrub rake (one of the best gardening tools ever invented, by the way) to really get right in there around the plants and rake the leaves out of the beds and onto the lawn.  

Windrows don't have to be orderly.  Just keep somewhat
clear of plants so mower doesn't blow leaves back into beds.
We rake them into pseudo-windrows that we can then simply run over with the mulching mower.  The trick here is to make the windrows deep enough so you're chopping up as many leaves as possible with a single pass of the mower, but not so deep that you'll clog the mower and stall the engine.  Or, even worse, have the leaves cover a rock which you will then hit with your mower and bend its crankshaft.  Trust me, I know about this.  We tend to make shallower windrows so that we can set the mowing deck as low as possible. This prevents the mower from kicking out a lot of leaves and blowing the windrows around too much. It also doesn't hurt if the leaves are slightly moist, like the day after a light rain, which helps them stay put.

Same area after running mulching mower over leaves.
When we're finished, we are left with a very fine mulch of leaves which is then lightly spread over the entire surface of the lawn with a large rake. You'll know if you've spread things thin enough if you can see at least one-inch of grass above the mulch.  This fine mulch will then begin to break down over the winter where it will provide nutrients for the soil.

Mulch is then spread into a thin layer over entire lawn
with a large rake.
It is estimated that 80% of the nutrients that a tree extracts from the soil end up in the leaves.  What better way to put some of this back into the soil than through leaf mulching.  A Michigan State University study showed that when leaves were mulched into established turf, the grass greened up quicker in the spring. And, research from Ohio State University also suggests that certain leaves may contain a natural herbicide that can effectively control the emergence of some broadleaf weeds like dandelions. These studies have been confirmed by both Cornell University and Purdue, who concluded that "we are now very confident in recommending professionals and homeowners to mulch tree leaves into the turf each fall." 

Approximate size of a good leaf mulch.
After many years of raking and bending to get leaves into a garden cart or struggling to drag a huge tarp full of leaves from far corners of the garden to the leaf composting pile, I can tell you that I'm finished with that. I'm turning over a new leaf. Or, leaves to be more exact.  Because of the terrain, it's not always possible for us to use the mulching technique in every section of the garden but, where possible, the leaves will stay where they drop, which is also where they'll do the soil, the lawn, and my back the most good.  


  1. Hmmm...speaking from the tarp-hauling brigade, this is mighty tempting. Gotta say that raking the leaves twice (once into windrows, then to spread around) doesn't thrill me. But the science makes total sense. Could someone please tell me where I can find a light rain? We seem to swing back and forth between torrential and 9 inches of snow...

    1. Hi Tovah! That second raking shouldn't even be called a raking as it's just to make sure the mulch is spread thin enough so that it's not suffocating the grass. It takes seconds, really. And, if you end up with at least 1" of grass above your mulch right after mowing, then no second raking is required. I'm afraid I can't help you with the light rain question. Like you, I seem to be living in a land of extremes these days!

  2. We've been doing the same thing for years while watching our neighbors struggle with hours of noisy, smelly blowers...wish they'd copy my husband's quick, easy, natural and oh so logical approach as you do, too!

    1. I think your husband is a wise man, Jeanne! Leaf blowers are horrible devices and hauling away load after load of leaves is doing little more than robbing the garden of wonderful nutrients that it can use very effectively. All we need to do to prove this point is to take a look at the forest floor.


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