My Garden!


Autumn Leaves
© 2006 MyGardenGnome

Topics in this article:

The leaves that fall in autumn can be as much a mess as they are beautiful. While they make their way to the ground they make a wonderful show of movement in your yards...but once they hit the ground, the clock starts running. Leaves are compost-on-the-hoof, already carrying many of the micro-organisms necessary to conduct biodegradation. When they meet the ground and accumulate moisture, the process is kicked-off! When the fallen leaves lay together for more than a week, they begin to form a solid, contiguous, impermeable sheet of decay that impedes most any plant growth. You CAN use this fact to your advantage, if you have any particular areas to reign in, but for the most part, you need to keep the leaves from forming such a tight blanket! Trees begin to shed in September, and it takes 4 or 6 weeks for the first half of all the leaves to drop. This is the slow period. By the end of October, the leaf drop accelerates. By the beginning of November it will seem that the leaves are falling faster than you can blow them of your lawn - but you should do it anyway. Weekly leaf removal is imperative to preserve the even carpet of a lawn.
(A single leaf left wet and laying on your lawn can create a "dead" spot in a week or less.)

If you live in the woods - or just near enough trees - your roof will collect leaves. It is very important that you remove the leaves from your roof and gutters through the Autumn Leaf Drop. When allowed to lay in the valley of a roof contour, the leaves decompose into compost very quickly. The day time sun really energizes the decay process, and these blankets of rotting leaves are insulated from cool overnight temperatures by newly fallen leaves on top, and from below by the vast air space you call home. The lowest 1/2 inch of these collected piles can become soil in as little as 6 weeks! In a heavy rain, this junk can form dams which force water BACK UP UNDER YOUR SHINGLES! Even worse, if allowed to remain on your roof into the freezing temperatures of late autumn and early winter, the moisture in these pockets will freeze and begin tearing your roof apart! This can also be a problem in your gutters and downspouts, too! If you are the type to only do this once per year, please be sure to do it before your area gets a freeze!

Appearance is the main factor behind repeated leaf removal from your beds. It is also easier to move a few freshly fallen leaves several times through the year than to wait until the end when you have to fight wet, compacted, half-decayed clumps in the cold of late November / early December. Even if you only clean out your beds ONCE (at the end of the leaf drop) you should still pay attention to your shrubs, removing leaves from the tops and inner branches on a weekly basis. Remember, it isn't so much about getting every single leaf as it is keeping the accumulation to a minimum. Rotting leaves in a shrub cause die-back.

A note about BLOWING versus RAKING: A blower is great at moving a lot of junk at one time - indescriminantly. If you have no concerns of self-sowing plants in your garden, then you can skip this little diatribe. Half of my personal beds - and many areas of bedding that I maintain for others - do NOT get a blower run through them during the autumn leaf drop. The blower will blow precious, desirable seeds out of the beds just as quickly and easily as other debris...including valuable mulch. I find that a WIRE rake is the best tool for the job of removing leaves from bed areas - especially from around perennials! Remember the technique of leaving up an inch or so of the flowering stalks during perennials cutting-back? A wire rake "flicks" junk out of these clumps much more efficiently than a blower - a blower really just tends to scatter all of the mulch and soil from around such an area without much displacing the debris trapped amongst these stalks. Furthermore, any damp or wet leaves require so much force from the blower that mulch, too, is inevitably displaced - a rake affords you a level of sensitivity unavailable through blower use. The best strategy is to rake leaves out of beds to the lawn (or into a tarp if you have so many leaves that it doesn't make sense to blow that whole pile across your quarter or half acre of Heaven on Earth), amen.

Sometime in early October, get to mowing your lawn shorter than in the rest of the year. Autumn IS grass growing weather, so go ahead and mow down to the lowest height you can (without scalping the lawn, of course!) Typically this is progressive: Last week of September you should drop your mower "A Notch", the next mow should be performed at that height, and then the mower should be dropped another notch and the lawn mowed again at the new lower height - preferably that same day, but within three days is fine. By progressively lowering your mowing height you are:

  • Staying ahead of the now faster growing lawn
  • Making leaf blowing and/or raking an easier job that the lawn is short and even
  • Setting yourself up for an easy "Over-Seeding" when the leaves are finished
Depending on how big your lawn is, and how many leaves accumulate, you will likely need to tarp your piles away as they become larger than your blower can effectively move. Remember, a blower is only to make the job easier - besides, you need to take periodic breaks from wearing a 40 lbs running motor on your back (or from swinging a 20 lbs "little" blower around at waist level.)


Ok, so you've got your leaves out of your beds and off your lawn do they go from here? Let's look at what these leaves are going to be doing so we can decide on an appropriate place.

First, these leaves are already decomposing. The rate of decomposition will accelerate. Ultimately, these leaves will become a nutrient rich compost ingredient. If you live in a municipality with seasonal leaf pickup service, check with your local office to be sure you place your windrows of leaves in an appropriate place and manner for their collection teams. You might consider investing in a large LARGE tarp or two to cover your "stash" until pickup if your neighborhood is windy.

If you have an acre or more of property to play with, you can consider composting the leaves. It is very easy to do. The hard part is doing it in a manner that is acceptably asthetic to the people you live with. For tidiness sake it should be in SOME sort of container ...but a compost "heap" needs to breath and collect rain, and likes to be stirred around sometimes! Ah, what to do...?

... stay tuned! I will be producing a guide to composting soon!