Leave the Leaves?

As mountain residents, Doug & Marie have come to know a thing or two about leaves.  Pull up a chair and join in as they share their experience.

leaves, fall, lawn care, fertilizer, land managementThe Bane of Urban Life

As city dwellers (long ago) we were taught that leaves shed by the few trees that existed in our yards were “the enemy”.  When they invaded our lawn; they were to be attacked with single minded devotion, rounded up and detained for destruction.  

Early on, the air on a fall weekend would be fragrant with the scent of burning leaves as the neighborhood residents raked the invading army to the curb and set them afire.  Later, the rows of leaves would be raked to the curb and left for the city “sucker trucks” that would (eventually) come along and vacuum up the leaves, grinding them into mulch that would be used by the City Parks Department, and offering the left-over (and there was always left-over) back to the citizenry for use in their own yards.

I recall entire neighborhoods that had been stripped bare of trees – at least of deciduous trees – because the inhabitants did not want to expend the effort of raking and disposing of the dreaded leaves.

Even here in the mountains, I have noted that in the high-end neighborhoods like Cobbly Knob, where the driveways are populated by Jaguars, Mercedes’ and Lexus’ there is a distinct lack of trees in their expanses of manicured lawn.

Companions of Rural Life

For those of us who have carved a niche out of a forest in which to live, eradicating the trees from all of our property is far too troublesome and is flat-out foolishness, especially here in the mountains.  Trees provide shade in the summer, protection from damaging wind, a great place to hang a swing for the kids, and a habitat for the songbirds we prize.

Of course one must be careful about which trees are allowed to stay in close proximity.  Hooligan trees, like Jack Pines, and damaged or diseased trees have a nasty habit of falling over with little provocation and smashing one’s home.  Some particularly paranoid folks choose to remove all trees that could reach their house, but that means clearing a swath 75 to 100 feet on every side of the home, leaving the house exposed and vulnerable to wind and sun.

Most of us do maintain an area of “lawn” close to our homes.  Although with the price of food and gasoline reaching ever higher many of us are converting a growing percentage of this cultured green-space from grass to vegetable and flower gardens; less to mow, more to eat, flowers are pretty, small nice and attract butterflies.

Nature’s Armor Coating

When we first got here, Marie and I stood gazing up into the woods around our home site and formulated a plan to go in and remove the smaller trees and rake out all the leaves from the forest floor, leaving a park-like space where we could walk and picnic and just lounge as we wished.  But experience and a little research quickly showed the foolhardiness of this plan.  Oh, it would be fine to remove the smaller trees, saplings and brushy growth to open up the space between the larger trees, but the thick blanket of leaves that had built up on the floor of the forest serves a vitally important job.

Areas where I removed the leaves were almost immediately overgrown with thistles, blackberries, mimosa, plantains, and dandelions.  And those areas began to erode badly with each rain.  I could not get grass to grow because the seed either washed away before it got rooted well enough to stand up to the rolling waters or was overpowered by the weeds.

The leaves on the forest floor are God’s way of feeding the trees as the bottom layer breaks down into compost, enriching the soil, preventing many weeds from sprouting and preventing erosion by forming a protective layer that encourages rain water to flow over the leaf bed.   In some places the natural contours of the land will concentrate the flow of rain water and create a wash that in a heavy rain may remove the leaves and allow erosion, but the vast majority of the landscape is well protected in this manner.

The primary reason our home is not troubled by mud slides – an ever-present danger in most “settled” mountain areas – is that there has been no development, other than an old logging road, of the mountain slope above us.  No one has removed the leaves and cut into the soil up there, therefore no matter how hard it rains, the only erosion and mud runs are along that old logging road, the driveways we’ve built, and places where we have cut into the slopes to create flat spots for our buildings.  While a heavy rain will cause a LOT of rain water to come rolling down the mountain side at us, it is always clean, clear water, not mud; until it gets here.

Lawns and Leaves

While I still rake up the leaves from our “lawn” in the fall – I move them to our garden to compost over the winter – many experts are now saying that we should leave the leaves on the grass over the winter to enrich it while dormant through the cold weather.  I see the benefit to this – but of course this plan only works well if either you are completely separated from other people or if everyone in a cluster of homes is practicing this mode of lawn care.

Being the only one in a cluster, or worse: a city neighborhood, that leaves the leaves will earn you a fair bit of disdain and some catty remarks in your neighbors’ “over the fence” discussions.  For not only will your contemporaries consider your yard unsightly, but every breeze will share your conservation method with them, creating more work if they are to keep their lawns pristine.

If you are able to put this method into practice there are several benefits:

Fall Leaves as Fertilizer

Every year, people spend millions of dollars to purchase commercial fertilizers and mulches for their lawns. Yet at the same time, they rake up the fallen leaves from neighboring trees and put them in the trash! Think about it – the trees around your yard rely on the same soil and water as your lawn. They deal with the same type of parasites and infections, so many of the tree’s defense mechanisms against these pests will also be found in the leaves. In this way, your leaves will be a better match for your lawn than a commercial fertilizer since the trees in your yard have already fought off the same problems.

There is a caveat to be aware of here: some leaves, beech and oak in particular, do not break down easily and can mat together and form a dense wet blanket that can actually harm your grass in spring.  A good compromise here is to run a mulching mower over the leaves in the late fall to grind them up into smaller pieces that will decompose more readily, and in early spring mow again with a bagger to remove the covering so light will get to the grass and rejuvenate it.  The bagged clippings would of course go in your compost pile.

Leaves as Protection

Other than helping to prevent erosion on slopes, a blanket of leaves does nothing to protect a lawn, for there really is nothing to protect it from.  Grass goes dormant in the winter and is perfectly capable of surviving the cold: leaves add nothing to this capability.  And, if left too long in the spring, a layer of leaves will block the light the grass needs to come out of dormancy and green up.  So, leaves as protection are essential for a forest floor but a fable for lawns.


If you are a city dweller who needs to maintain peaceful relations with neighbors, compost your leaves and use the result on your flowers next spring.  If you can leave the leaves, try it next fall and see if it doesn’t enrich your soil, feed your lawn and save you the expense of a lawn fertilizer.

Thank you for reading, please feel free to leaf a comment below and share your thoughts on this topic.

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