Life & Style
Death. Taxes. Autumn Leaves
The Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme will refresh plant beds and cover perennials on the Artists’ Trail with leaves this year. The museum aims for an ecological landscape, and leaf mulch is a natural fit. (Photo courtesy of Petie Reed, Perennial Harmony Land Care)
Mulch-mow leaves frequently during autumn before leaf layers become too thick. The resulting volume is about 10 percent of the whole leaf. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Connecticut began municipal leaf composting in the late ‘80s. Today, more than half of the state’s towns have some form of leaf composting. Leaf gathering and transport are energy-intensive, however. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Leaves are an excellent replacement for bark mulch. Here, they cover soil around a shrub. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Ironically, we use paper bags, made of fallen trees, to gather fallen leaves—and then send them to a leaf dump to decay together. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Trees are only one source of leaf mulch. Here, fern leaves cover the soil around a dogwood. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly)
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing is inevitable but death and taxes. As a lifelong Northeasterner, I’d add fallen leaves to his list. Unfortunately, many people look forward to October leaves about as much as they do death and taxes.
Is there another way to look at leaves? I think so, and so do others apparently.
For instance, this year the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme will refresh plant beds and cover perennials on the Robert F. Schumann Artists’ Trail with mulch-mowed leaves, and, in some cases, whole leaves.
Trail caretaker Petie Reed, owner of Perennial Harmony Land Care, says, “The museum aims for an ecological landscape. Leaf mulch is a natural fit with that goal.”
Reed says she’s been transitioning her other clients to leaf mulch for several years.
The state has encouraged municipal leaf composting since the late 1980s. Today, slightly more than half of the state’s towns have municipal leaf composting. An additional 10 percent of towns offer residents the option to take leaves to private compost facilities.
Yet, in Old Saybrook, First Selectman Carl Fortuna says “Though we offer a leaf dump for residents in the fall, the town itself mulch-mows leaves that fall on its properties. We would encourage our residents to do the same.”
Additionally, organizations such as the Xerces Society, Healthy Yards, and the Bedford, New York, 2030 Coalition, have put “leave the leaves” campaigns on their websites and social media.
Why? Simply, leaves are good for landscapes. And the energy required to pick up, transport, and manage leaf litter at municipal facilities is bad for the environment. There are plenty of good reasons why it’s better to keep leaves at home.
A Healthy Landscape
Mulch-mowed leaves decay into lawns within a few weeks, adding nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to the soil. Those are the same nutrients you might otherwise purchase in plastic bags, labeled with “N-P-K.” Leaves also contain micronutrients that help plants grow. There’s little or no need to purchase special products. (See the Rutger University Extension fact sheet on leaf nutrients in the resource list below.)
Mulch-mowed leaves as well as whole leaves are an excellent replacement for bark mulch around shrubs and trees, and on plant beds. Like bark mulch, they moderate soil temperatures. Like bark mulch, leaves retain moisture around plant roots.
Compared to bark mulch, decaying leaves supply a broader spectrum of nutrients. Additionally, leaves permit water and air to reach the soil surface and filter downward more efficiently than bark mulch.
Leaf mulch around trees and shrubs becomes soil organic matter within a year, making it a replacement for bagged compost and avoiding a build-up of empty plastic bags.
If you live in a leafy neighborhood, you may have “leftovers” even after mulch mowing. Leaves are a great addition to home compost piles. (Find two informative books listed in the resources, as well as a source of compost containers.)
Bonus point: When you keep all leaves on site, paper leaf collection bags become obsolete.
Many birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and mammals rely on leaf litter for nutrition and cover in wooded areas. Overwintering birds forage for insects and seeds in leaves. Moths and butterflies pupate in leaves. Firefly larvae live in leaf litter for up to two years before they emerge and delight us with their bioluminescent displays. Some native ground-nesting bees make their winter nests near and under leaf litter, as do many turtles, toads, salamanders, and snails.
As a result, avoid clearing the floor of woodland areas. Also, avoid piling leaves from other sites into woodlands. Excess leaves disrupt natural processes.
Streams, Ponds, and Rivers
The presence of leaves in water bodies is complicated. Too many leaves in water can create phosphorous overload and lead to algae blooms. This condition arises when leaves enter municipal stormwater systems. (See Wisconsin’s Clean Lakes Alliance below.)
On the other hand, natural leaf fall from the trees surrounding water bodies is critical to aquatic life. Indeed, we should never clear-cut up to a pond edge, as trees and shrubs shade and cool the water in summer. Autumn leaves feed aquatic life, which in turn feed fish.
In his insightful article, “Leaves Are a Feast for Stream Life,” freshwater ecologist Dr. David Strayer writes, “The insects that feed on the wet, rotting leaves are called ‘shredders,’ and include some of the stoneflies and caddisflies, crane fly larvae and crustaceans...All of these stream insects...feed the trout and other stream fishes that we care about.”
If leaves are so good, why do so many people give them the heave-ho? The root cause, in most cases, is a concern for the health of lawn grasses. When whole leaves cover lawns for an entire winter, they damage the grass. Furthermore, stray leaves can make neighbors unhappy.
Luckily, mulch-mowing solves these problems. If you don’t have access to a mulch-mower yet, see the helpful article at LeaveLeavesAlone.org. Also, see Consumer Reports ratings on the mulching features of mowers. (See resources below.)
Then, there are safety concerns.
Ticks are a serious problem. Tick-borne diseases increased over the past 30 years, and it is a fact that ticks tend to be more numerous in leaf litter. Fortunately, we can address that problem with monthly tick treatments for pets and appropriate permethrin-treated clothing and tick repellents for ourselves. (See the clothing article citation below.)
In addition, wet leaves can be a safety concern on sidewalks and roads, particularly after freezing temperatures set in. They need to be removed, but not necessarily to municipal leaf dumps. It is more energy-efficient to keep the leaves close to where they fall, on plant beds, vegetated roadsides, or at backyard composting sites.
Well-used leaves are like found money and found time. See the resource list for ideas that will help you start. It’s an old cliché, but still valid: There’s no time like the present to turn over a new leaf.
Resources for Autumn Leaf Management
• See the Xerces Society’s campaign by entering #LeavetheLeaves in a browser.
• See the Leave Leaves Alone campaign: LeaveLeavesAlone.org.
• Books about composting: Let it Rot by Stu Campbell and The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin.
• For a wide selection of compost containers: www.gardeners.com/buy/outdoor-living/composting
• Consumer Reports mulching mower ratings: www.consumerreports.org/lawn-mowers -and-tractors/best-and-worst- walk-behind-lawn-mowers- a8383078097/
• “Leaves Are a Feast for Stream Life,” Dr. David Strayer, freshwater ecologist, www.caryinstitute.org/news-insights/feature/leaves-are-feast-stream-life
• Tick protection with permethrin-treated clothing at Zip06: www.zip06.com/living/20201217/how-to-leave-those-ticks-in-the-winter-woodlands
• Rutgers University Fact Sheet on Nutrients in leaves: sustainable-farming.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Municipal_Leaves_Plant_Nutrients_Available_FS824_1998.pdf
Kathy Connolly keeps all the leaves that fall around her home. See her blog or reach her at www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.