Monday, November 30, 2009

Green Tip # 2: Mow your leaves instead of raking. Your trees will thank you.

Text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD, of

Those predictable piles of autumn leaves

Last weekend, our neighbors across the street spent at least 5 hours raking the leaves from their lawn. Their whole family was involved in the process. Granted, it was probably good exercise. Although for me, raking hurts my back - having to twist and pull at the same time.  So maybe it was, maybe it wasn't "good exercise" for the neighbors.

At any rate, the family bagged their leaves into 23 black garbage bags and lined them up along the edge of the street for the city to pick up.  Because these neighbors didn't use transparent bags, their leaves will not be chopped up by the city and recycled as mulch, but will instead go to the landfill.

 In Charlotte, anything in a black bag is "garbage" for the landfill, even if it's pure leaves

Above, the clear bags that residents are asked to use for yard waste
Ken and I don't like the idea of robbing our own trees of all the valuable nutrients stored in their leaves. The big oak trees around here have a hard time, between the frequent droughts and the city's persistent infestation of fall cankerworms. So we  stopped raking a couple of years ago.

Our lawn in October, covered by oak and maple leaves

Instead of raking, we decided to try mowing the leaves and then leaving them on the lawn. We did it a few times last fall and winter and it worked great. At first, I thought they would make a brown carpet that would persist and smother the grasses.  I was wrong. The leaves virtually disappear after they're mowed. They just sink into the grass and eventually into the soil, where they decompose and feed the tree roots.

Ken mowing the grass and leaves 

Last weekend, Ken mowed all the leaves in our yard, which is about the same size as the neighbors'. It took 20 minutes. That was the second time he'd mowed since the leaves started falling in October. Our lawn isn't much of a lawn; we keep talking about converting it to a meadow of native species.  But still, for now, it is a ground-cover of grasses and weeds that qualifies as a lawn.

Our lawn last week, just after mowing the leaves and grass.  Hardly any leaves visible!

One week later (above), with a week's accumulation of fallen leaves. One of us will mow it again in a couple of weeks, and these leaves too will more-or-less disappear.

Above, the lawn of a neighbor down the street who has blown every leaf off her property with a loud leaf-blower.  The yard looks tidy, but how long can trees go on in a healthy state, losing all the nutrients they put into those leaves every year?  I don't know. Apparently a long time. But I'm glad to be recycling our own leaves back to the source.

Why doesn't everyone who has a lawn chop-up the leaves and let them lie? Or better yet, just let them lie unmowed, and convert to a native woodland? Where did we get the idea that leaves must be raked or blown, or that we need to have pristine lawns to begin with? It seems to be a meaningless tradition that we need to re-think, given the rate at which we're destroying wildlife habitat by development.  How much better if we can all do something to leave our yards a little more natural.  See the National Wildlife Federation for ideas about making your yard more wildlife-friendly.

My previous "Green Tip" posts, and previous posts about lawns:

Green Tip #1: Annex the Outdoors; Save Energy & Materials

How to convert a lawn to a native meadow or woodland

Top 10 eco-friendly yard and garden choices 

Lawn is a dirty word 

Lawns are 5th largest crop in terms of land use 

Yard drama: a story of housecats, chipmunks, rats, ivy, and native plants

Housecats kill hundreds of millions of birds annually

Key words:: lawns nutrient recycling falling leaves raking leaves

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