Leave Taking: Rake, Mow Or Compost?
The Rural Intelligence region is fortunate to have so many gardening experts close by. Our garden writer, Madaline Sparks, is the principal in her own design, installation and maintenance business, Madaline Sparks Garden Design, with clients in Columbia and Berkshire counties. For 12 years she was the contributing garden editor at Real Simple Magazine. Madaline and her husband, Wayne Greene, live in Spencertown, NY where both are very active volunteers at Spencertown Academy Arts Center.
In our corner of the world, we have to pay the price for a landscape that annually delivers jaw-dropping fall beauty. The bill for that privilege? A massive leaf-drop of leviathan scale. Rakers fall into two camps: those who find doing it a contemplative, aerobic exercise, a kind of traditional celebration at this time of year, and those who feel it is a tedious task to be avoided at all costs. Whichever description fits you, be reassured that taking it on is huge benefit to your garden and lawn.
I’m often asked why letting leaves stay where they fall or blow, to break down naturally, isn’t a good practice. It’s true that leaves make great compost, but that is only when they break down and decompose relatively quickly. When they are left in layered piles stuck together by moisture, they become an impenetrable mat that makes a perfect cover for voles and other damaging critters over the winter. Matted leaf “blankets” hold too much moisture in the soil and can cause crown rot of perennials unfortunate enough to be located underneath. It’s also harder for the new growth of perennials to emerge through this thick mat in spring. And, if left on the lawn, they will kill the grass beneath, depriving it of air and moisture just when it breaks dormancy in spring and needs those elements to green up.
If you don’t like raking, pull out the lawnmower and chop leaves in place by mowing over them. Small pieces of leaves will break down quickly and feed the lawn naturally. If you want to add leaves to the garden beds, rake or blow them into piles and run over them with the mower a bunch of times. Gather the chopped leaves and sprinkle them as mulch over the top of your beds and around the base of plants and shrubs. In this state, they won’t do any damage but will help condition the soil and improve its texture as they break down.
I have a shady fenced corner at the back end of my property where no grass grows. Every autumn I drag all the raked leaves that aren’t mulched by the mower and left to compost on the grass to this spot. This starts as a giant heap and by spring it is reduced by more than half. I do this every year and each spring I harvest the rich, brown and crumbly layer from the bottom of the pile, where the oldest leaves from previous years have broken down. The term for this organic amendment is called “leaf mold”. Mix it into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil that needs amending or top dress garden beds around existing perennials as a mulch to retain moisture and help make the surface more permeable for rainfall. In short, leaf mold promotes microbial activity, water retention and aeration, all good things for healthy soil.
Don’t worry if you don’t get every leaf out of the garden. Between the wind blowing leaves in from other locations and any trees that drop very late, like oaks and willows, it’s not always practical to achieve a leafless bed, but getting the bulk of them out and putting them to good use is well worth the effort involved.