Your Leaves: To Love ’Em Is to Leave ’Em…

An Environmental & Cost-Saving Initiative of Westchester County and Local Municipalities

Leaves are a valuable resource that many property owners let go to waste every fall. Leaves are blown into piles on the street, or placed into bags, left for municipal pickup. Too often these vast piles spread out creating a safety hazard for drivers and wash into the storm drains, clogging storm sewers. Leaves decaying on the street also release nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen (aka “fertilizer”) that eventually wash into our rivers. Ugh! What a mess!

Leaf piles in street, clogging storm drain, leaching into river.
Leaf piles on street cause unsafe driving conditions,
clog storm drains, and leach phosphorus into river.

DPW crew working overtime to collect leaves left curbside.
DPW crew working overtime to collect leaves left curbside.
So as a homeowner or property owner, are there better options? How can we be smarter about how we deal with fall’s bounty of leaves? Answer: Leave ’em at home!

Mulching (shredding) in-place is the best and simplest solution. It is easy to learn, easy to implement, gets great “green” points, and better yet: actually saves time & money!

This practice of mulching-in-place offers many benefits:
  • Saves money: Helps keep your taxes down by reducing municipal leaf pickup and disposal. (Landscapers can also save operating costs by needing smaller crews and avoiding dumping fees.)
  • Saves effort: Many homeowners (and landscapers) find that mulching leaves in place actually is easier than raking, bagging, or blowing them to the curb.
  • Keeps your property healthy: Leaf mulch recycles nutrients into your soil to feed your plants, improves soil health, and helps retain moisture, reducing the need for watering in dry spells.
  • Helps the planet: Transporting and disposing of leaves from your curb wastes energy and contributes to pollution. LELE helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions in your local community.
By now you’re thinking, “OK, I’m sold! So how do I mulch-in-place? What’s the secret?”

It’s as simple as shredding your leaves into smaller, finer pieces. You can shred ’em using a mulching lawn mower, a leaf shredder, a leaf vacuum/shredder, or even a do-it-yourself setup using a weed whacker inside a trash can. Like magic, when shredded, leaf volume reduces up to 10:1.

Finely shredded leaf mulch.
Finely shredded leaf mulch.
The trick is to shred ’em “in place” where possible. This means to shred ’em directly on your lawn into fine pieces which break down over the winter. On your driveway, rake into piles and shred ’em, then collect the finely chopped mulch and apply it to your garden beds 2”-3” thick as you would any other mulch.

Leaves in your wooded areas? Simply leave ’em alone and let ’em decompose naturally. After all, your trees evolved to recycle their leaves, thereby fertilizing themselves and helping to maintain the vigor of their root zones.

The one “problem” area may be your landscape garden beds including ground cover areas: un-shredded leaves can be heavy and damp (especially oak and sycamore) and may lead to crown rot in some perennial species. Carefully pull, rake or blow off the leaves from the beds, then shred and apply the fluffy mulch back onto the beds.

But wait! There’s more: any excess leaf mulch can be used in your compost pile. These serve as a “brown” layer in your compost recipe. (Shredded leaves in your pile undergo speeded-up decomposition.)

LELE Postcard template can be found in Toolbox.

For additional background information about leaf mulching techniques and benefits, please read this article: "Mulch Fallen Leaves into Turf for a Smart Lawn" (.pdf) from Michigan State University.