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Raking leaves again this fall? Stop right now

It’s fall and that means leaves are littering lawns around the country.

Time to take out the rake and bag up them up, right? Wrong.

Environmental experts say raking leaves and removing them from your property is bad not only for your lawn but for the planet as a whole.

Although people often rake fallen leaves and send them to a landfill to prevent their lawns from being smothered and to make yards look better, in most cases, you’re fine not moving them.

“Just leave them where they are and grind them up,” said John Sorochan, a professor of turfgrass science at University of Tennessee.

However, if you have a lot of trees dumping leaves or the piles begin to mound up, Dan Sandor, a postdoctoral researcher of turfgrass science at University of Minnesota, advises mowing over the leaves with a mulching blade about once a week.

Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t rake your leaves and other tips to care for your lawn this fall:

Autumn foliage (Photo: CLEMENS BILAN, EPA-EFE)

Leaves and yard waste take up space in landfills

According to EPA data, yard trimmings, which include leaves, created about 34.7 million tons of waste in 2015, which is about 13% of all waste generation.

The majority of that – 21.3 million tons – was composted or mulched in state programs, the EPA says, yet still, 10.8 million tons went to landfills, accounting for just under 8% of all waste in landfills.

“The worst thing you can do is put (leaves) in bags and send them to landfills,” said David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation.

Leaves take up space and they also can break down with other organic waste to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change, he added.

Leaving your leaves could make your lawn healthier – and save you money

Think you need to spend money on expensive fertilizers to keep your grass healthy? Think again, said Mizejewski.

“Leaves cover up root systems, preserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and other plants. They also slowly break down and . return (essential) nutrients to plants,” Mizejewski said. “It’s a perfect system. Nothing is wasted in nature.”

“It’s free fertilizer,” said Sandor.

Some leaves like maples do a great job of reducing weed seed germination while other species like honey locust add a lot of nitrogen to lawns, Sandor said.

The environment around you depends on your leaves

Butterflies and songbirds alike depend on leaf litter, according to Mizejewski.

“Over winter months, a lot of butterflies and moths as pupa or caterpillar are in the leaf litter, and when you rake it up you are removing the whole population of butterflies you would otherwise see in your yard,” he said.

Without the insects in the leaf litter, you also risk driving away birds that might have come to your yard looking for food to feed their offspring in the spring.

That’s especially concerning in 2019, Mizejewski said, citing a September study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, which found that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

“Keeping some leaf litter can really benefit these kinds of declining wildlife,” Mizejewski said. “This is wildlife conservation on the scale of your lawn.”

Sorochan, at University of Tennessee, said that keeping leaves on your lawn also has the added benefit of reducing fertilizer runoff.

Algal blooms can kill wildlife and harm human health, and they often form when excess fertilizer runs into waterways. Because leaving leaves on your lawn serves as a fertilizer, if no other fertilizers are added, it will reduce runoff, Sorochan said.

Blowing leaves into the street is also bad, said Minnesota’s Sandor. Because leaves have so many nutrients in them, they can break down when they get into sewers and also cause algal blooms in waterways, he said.

The fall foliage we see each autumn is thanks to a lot of science. Buzz60

But you still might need to do some raking

While in most cases, your lawn will benefit if you keep the leaves where they fall, some raking may be necessary, the experts agree.

Sandor said leaves and lawns are different shapes and sizes, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If it looks like your mower won’t be able to handle all the leaves or like your lawn is being smothered, that’s when you may need to rake them to thin it out, he says.

If you do remove your leaves, the best thing to do is cut them up and drop them in a plant or flower bed or another part of your lawn that doesn’t get leaf cover, Mizejewski said.

That will provide a natural fertilizer and mulch for those parts of your yard. If you’re worried the leaves will blow away (though they should be fine), lightly water them, Mizejewski said.

If you don’t have a plant or flower bed or have too many leaves, start a compost bin, he and Sandor advise.

Some municipalities also have compost programs, which allow you to send your leaves off and get mulch back, Mizejewski said, but composting at your house is better so you don’t have the added pollution of trucks and off-site machines taking and processing the leaves.

“This is about taking baby steps for most people and getting to a maintenance on your yard and garden that is a little bit more environmentally friendly and wildlife friendly,” Mizejewski said.

Contributing: Mary Bowerman, USA TODAY. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

Autumn Leaves: Should You Collect Them or Leave Them in Place?

We love to watch autumn leaves as they morph from green to red, orange, or yellow, but once they fall to the ground, many gardeners no longer see them as beautiful, but instead as a mess to be contained and removed. But that might not always be the best approach.

Using blowers or other power tools to remove leaves from your garden burns fossil fuels and emits fumes, not to mention the noise pollution. Raking leaves by hand can be time consuming and comes with some environmental costs, too. Even if you live in one of the select NYC neighborhoods where leaves are picked up curbside for composting, the trucks that come and collect those leaves are using energy and creating exhaust fumes.

Consider this: As long as you are keeping the overall health of your garden in mind, leaving the leaves can sometimes be the best choice, ecologically and horticulturally. How do you decide when to let leaves be and when to remove them? Here are some questions to help you decide:

Are the leaves on your hardscape?

Hardscape includes paved areas of your garden like stone or brick and you should always remove any leaves (or other organic matter) from these areas because they can become slippery and dangerous, especially after rain or snow. Instead of taking them to the curb, you could move all or some them to your garden bed instead. Read on for more advice on that.

You could also transfer some to your compost bin if you compost at home. If your bin can’t accommodate them all now, consider keeping them on standby for future use.

Could your plants get smothered by the leaves?

If you have a garden bed with small plants and large fallen leaves (bigger than those on your garden plants) or a large volume of them, the leaf drop could smother the plants. In BBG’s Rock Garden, for instance, there are several beds with very small evergreen succulent plants like stonecrops and hens and chicks. I remove the fallen leaves from those beds so they don’t block the plants’ access to sunlight and air circulation, especially important for evergreens, which don’t go into winter dormancy.

If you have a bed with mostly large, vigorous plants or an area with mostly bulbs (which are dormant for the winter), there is no need to remove the leaves. In fact, leaving them in place could help protect your plants and suppress weeds.

Lawns, on the other hand, can be smothered by a heavy covering of leaves. If you are trying to cultivate a vigorous lawn in a spot that receives a lot of leaf drop, it is best to remove most of it. A fairly light amount of leaves can enrich the soil without smothering the plants. To further help the fallen leaves do their winter work, you can chop them with a lawn mower. You can also move excess leaves from your lawn to appropriate garden beds or your compost bin instead of putting them out on the curb.

Do you want your plants to self-sow?

If you are trying to grow self-sowing plants, a heavy layer of leaves could inhibit the seeds’ ability to germinate. Conversely, if you are not trying to cultivate any self-sowing plants, any leaves not raked out of your beds may help to prevent weed seeds from germinating.

Do the pH needs of the plants you are cultivating match the pH of the fallen leaves?

The pH level is important because it influences how readily the plants in your garden are able to access nutrients from the soil. Most plants have a range in which they will do well, and most common garden plants tend to do well in soil on the more acidic side of the spectrum (which is what you will usually find in the Northeast). Leaves from acid-loving trees, like oak and pine, will further acidify the soil over the years as they decompose. This will be particularly beneficial for more acid-loving plants like rhododendrons, heaths, and heathers.

But if you’re trying to maintain a bed with plants that need alkaline soil—for instance alpine plants like gentians and rock jasmines—acidic leaf litter will undermine your efforts. If your neighbor’s oak leaves and pine needles keep blowing into your garden, you’re better off removing them.

Can your garden accommodate the weight?

If you have a garden with a weight limit, like a rooftop garden, you should remove the leaves. Over several seasons, the gradual accumulation of leaf debris could make your garden exceed the weight limit of your garden.

Do the leaves harbor any diseases or pests?

Just as leaf litter can provide shelter and sustenance to beneficial organisms, they can also harbor pests and disease. If the plant that the leaves came from seems diseased or infested with pests in any way, remove its leaves and dispose of them.

Do your plants like rich soil?

Leaving the leaves is a great way to add organic matter to your soil. Most common garden plants thrive in rich, moisture-retentive soil with a diverse food web of worms, insects, and other organisms, so the additional organic matter will do a lot of good. Instead of removing the leaves each fall and then trucking in mulch each spring, save time, energy and money by just letting the leaves decompose and act as mulch.

If instead you have plants in your garden that prefer a leaner, dryer soil—say, desert plants (like ice plant) or prairie natives (like coneflowers)—you would do well to remove at least some of the leaves.

We often think of a garden like a picture—a static and unmoving tableau—and in response to that image, we make choices from a purely aesthetic point of view. If the leaves look messy, we remove them. But a garden is really an ecosystem where only a small part of what is taking place is apparent. So much is happening underground and inside the plants themselves. When you are considering what to do with the brown leaves in your garden this fall, don’t just think about how they look. Think about what they can do for your garden, and about what you can do for the environment, by letting all or some of them stay put.