In much of my service
area, here in the mid-Atlantic region, there are many “old growth” trees. The term old growth is kind of an arborist
term. It usually refers to a large stand
of trees or even a stand of trees as big as a forest, trees that have remained
relatively undisturbed. In this case, what
I mean by old growth trees are old and large trees in an urban or suburban
landscape. Trees that have been there
for a long time and have a rather large trunk radius at chest height.
I’m a big guy, six and a
half feet tall. If I cannot wrap my arms
completely around the trunk of a tree, that’s a big tree. And logic dictates that a tree with a trunk
that size, or larger, is a fairly old tree.
On my property I have 18 old growth trees. My calculations on their age range from around
150 to 175 years old – at least – maybe even older. I imagine where my house was built used to be
a forest. I have written other blog
posts about tree care (e.g. “Tree Care for Turfgrass Warriors”) but in this
blog post I’m going to focus on what to do about all those leaves that come
down in the fall. Should you remove the
leaves? What can you do besides removal? And, what do those leaves do to the soil if
they are not removed?
The short answer to the
first question is: YES. If you want
quality turf, you need to do SOMETHING about those leaves. Turf needs sunlight to thrive. Turfgrass leaves must be exposed to sunlight
to assist in the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process where light
energy is transformed into chemical energy.
Without sunlight, plants cannot produce chlorophyll. Chlorophyll
is the by-product of the plant by taking sunlight and making energy for the
plant to grow. For good and healthy turf,
you need several hours (5 to 8) of sunlight each day.
You ever put down a tarp
or something else over your turf for a couple days? Did you notice that it started to turn yellow
or just wilt in general? That’s because
you blocked the sun. Fallen leaves will
have the same effect as laying out a huge tarp.
One thing you should
consider is removing all the leaves entirely.
I get lots and lots and lots of leaves in my yard. If you have this affliction, I feel your
pain. I know raking by hand is tough, especially
if you have a large turf area. Blowing
them can be difficult as well. I’ve
tried using a Billy Goat, like a big lawn vacuum. The bag for that thing would fill up in
seconds. I also have a tow behind lawn
sweeper. I spend more time emptying that
thing than actually dragging it around to sweep up the leaves. Fall leaves can be a tough mission to
accomplish – especially if you are an army of one.
I’ve inserted a picture
that shows one of my sub-contractors (a local landscape company near Mount
Vernon, VA – Green Blades) removing my leaves.
For a flat fee, sometimes they show up two or three times during the
fall leaf drop period. What they usually
do is blow the leaves onto a huge tarp and drag the tarp to the front curb. Many municipalities (or other units of
government) have leaf pick up from the curb.
I just pay the few extra dollars to have the landscape company haul away
the leaves each time. The landscape
company uses the same equipment as the government for hauling away the
leaves. It is a big vacuum that is towed
behind a large truck. The workers rake
the leaves into this huge suction tube about 20 inches in diameter. I like that much better. I drink coffee and supervise.
Complete leaf removal –
however you do it – is my first recommendation.
Listen, you can’t do your other lawn and landscape winterization
missions (dethatching, fertilizing, aerating, bed mulching, etc.) if you have a
serious layer of leaves in your yard. And,
you may run out of time for your other winterization missions if you are
working leaves all the time. Get the
leaves collected; and get them gone.
That’s what I say.
Another course of action answers
the second question. That course of
action is “chopping up” or “mulching” those leaves. In most cases, for the standard homeowner, that
means running over the leaves with your mower.
But, think about that for a second.
If you have a fairly deep or thick layer of fallen leaves, having them
all chopped up does not necessarily alleviate the sunlight exposure issue I
discussed earlier. Remember, you are
trying to expose your turfgrass to more sunlight, not just cover it up again
with leaves that are in smaller chunks (and those smaller bits would be even
more difficult to manage or remove).
In addition, its hard to
say at what “amount” or “depth” of leaves would it be disadvantageous to chop
them up. I think you just got to eyeball
it. I can’t really tell you, “Well,
newly fallen leaves (and what type of tree?) over a depth of X inches should
not be mulched.” Sorry. You might have to do your own analysis on
material to your lawn, ornamental beds and soil is a good thing. Having a good amount of organic material in
your soil increases aeration and soil tilth.
Mulching leaves certainly assists in accomplishing that mission. But, are the mulched leaves going to just be left
on the surface? How do you plan to
integrate the mulched leaves into the soil?
More questions to think about.
There are other
considerations too. Certain leaves, from
certain cultivars of trees, can alter the pH of your soil. The big, old growth trees on my property are
two different kinds of oak. Oak trees
make the soil acidic just by being there – and the leaves make the soil even
more acidic. Generally speaking, oak
tree leaves have a pH of 4.3 to 5.3.
That is way below what is desired for most turfgrass soil. Pine needles, for example, can also increase the
acidity of soil. So, this too may be an
argument for complete and total leaf removal.
If you really have your
heart set on mulching your leaves, please make sure you have a mulching
attachment and/or mulching blades on your mower. Mulching mowers chop up leaves (turfgrass
clippings, just about everything) more finely.
It basically holds things inside the mower deck longer and chops the
stuff up more. I’ve said this a million
times: A mulching mower is environmentally
responsible. It saves you additional
fertilizer applications, improves soil tilth and reduces thatch. It allows your grass clippings to decompose
faster. Use a mulching mower all the
time, every time you mow – not just for your leaves.
And don’t forget about
sharp blades. Can’t say that enough
either. Getting your blades sharpened is
okay. Hopefully, you or the guy doing
the sharpening know how to do it correctly.
Unbalanced blades can be dangerous, damaging equipment or even a nearby
person. For @ $70.00 (including
shipping) I get new blades every year. I
throw the old blades in the recycling bin.
My mower has a 42 inch deck. It
uses two blades. I get two sets of
blades each year. I put a new set of
blades on the mower at the beginning of the spring mowing season and a put
another new set of blades on at the beginning of the fall mowing season.
Hey, I get my leaves
removed. But, guess what I do when I mow
in between the leaf removal guys visits?
I mulch my leaves. Sometimes its
not many leaves, but they get chewed up regardless.
Okay. I’m gonna wrap this up. If you live in an area where fall leaves are
pretty significant, I highly recommend you get rid of them – anyway you
can. If you are going to mulch them,
consider some of my points here. I think
there may also be a happy medium and cost effective way to do a little of both
– removal and mulching. That would be an
excellent exercise in negotiation with a local landscape company. They remove some; you handle the rest. A lot of it also depends on timing, the
climate during a particular fall, etc.
Also, look on my blog
post, “Leadership by Example”. I will
post some more recent photos of my lawn from this past fall, the fall of 2015. You will not see many leaves. But, you may see a few that have been chopped
Get rid of your leaves. I can guide you.