Rake or Leave the Leaves? It All Depends
It seems that if you scratch the surface, almost any aspect of gardening can generate some controversy. On the question of leaves, controversy was apparently sparked by a post on the website of the National Wildlife Federation entitled “Why You Should Leave the Leaves”.
The NWF advocates using fallen leaves as a resource instead of bagging them to be carted away like trash:
Let leaves stay where they fall. They won’t hurt your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower.
Rake leaves off the lawn to use as mulch in garden beds. For finer-textured mulch, shred them first.
Let leaf piles decompose; the resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention.
Keeping your leaves around enriches the soil, insulates plants, and helps insects and other wildlife to overwinter.
But not so fast, says Elizabeth Licata on Garden Rant. She points out that NWF’s advice does not work for her urban neighborhood with its many mature shade trees and consequent surfeit of leaves. Too many leaves can form a dense layer that smothers grass and perennials. And what about leaves accumulating in gutters and on sidewalks?
Ms. Licata makes some valid points – though I think she is a little bit unfair to the NWF, which qualified their advice more carefully than she recognizes. For instance, they do say that leaves left on grass must be shredded first.
Personally, I’m sympathetic to the “leave the leaves” approach, but there are limits. I rake the leaves on our lawn but mostly leave them on the perennial beds. The leaves from the lawn end up composted or spread on a hidden spot behind the Siberian Elm that grows in our Thicket Corner.
The leaves on our beds and borders generally form a layer a couple of inches thick. If there is much more than that, I spread them around or move them elsewhere.
The size of the leaves is also a factor. Smaller leaves (such as Elms, Hackberry, or Silver Maple) make a better mulch in my experience. Concentrations of large leaves like those of Norway Maple need to be shredded or moved to where there is no danger of smothering plants.
I would dearly love to have my own shredder, but I don’t like using gas-powered equipment in the garden. I tried an electric shredder but it wasn’t up to the task – and neither is my push mower. These days I hire trusted landscapers to do my spring cleanup, and they take care of whatever shredding of plant debris is needed (but I have to remind them to leave the shredded stuff with me).
One thing about a layer of leaves is that it will delay the warming of the soil in spring. That means delayed bloom times, which is a problem for those of us suffering from BDS (Bloom Deprivation Syndrome) by the time April rolls around. So in early spring I tend to shift the leaves around where I know there are Crocus and other spring flowers.
What’s your approach to autumn leaves in the garden?