To Leave, or Not to Leave
or Don’t Leave (all) The Leaves
By Wendy Diaz, Durham Master Gardener Volunteer
Vibrant leaves on trees can add color to your fall garden but they soon become a nuisance when they drop on your grass, especially if it is recently sprouted grass that you seeded in September. You must remove the leaves from the grass because they prevent the grass blades from conducting photosynthesis and this impacts their vigor.
This fall it may be difficult to use a leaf blower because we have had so much rain and the leaves have formed a wet mat. Embrace the rake and get some upper body exercise. Gather the leaves into a pile and place them in your compost, beneath trees or in an area of your yard where they can decompose (not near a stream). I always made a big pile for my kids to jump in when there were small. Do not add black walnut leaves or twigs to your compost because it releases substances that might harm plants and do not add pine needles to your compost because their waxy coating is resistant to decay (http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/2-composting#section_heading_5138). You can also use leaves to mulch your perennial bed to protect it from the winter elements. Leaves can be worked into your garden to add nutrient-rich organic matter to your soil as well. If leaves are dry, run them over with your lawn mower and you can reapply the fines (top dress) to your grass as fertilizer.
Some city residents can put them in leaf bags with their brown city waste cart for curbside service http://durhamnc.gov/891/Yard-Waste whereas county residents transport them to their local Durham County Convenience Site, however, this can be a ‘waste’ of a valuable garden resource. Nevertheless, it is preferable than to rake them into the street where they enter our storm sewer drains and end up in our already compromised streams and lakes. It is better to have the leaves decay at your local solid-waste facility or in your garden then in our waterways where they release nutrients as they decompose, contribute to the growth of unwanted algae which consumes essential dissolved oxygen that kills fish. It is against city ordinances to put or blow your leaves on the street or in a storm drain. In addition to adding nutrients to our waterways they also clog drains, cause flooding and pose a danger to bicyclists (http://durhamnc.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/710).
If you are not into all that exercise, here is a garden tip from our former Extension Agent Michelle Wallace: net areas where it is difficult to rake leaves such as ground covers or shrubs like junipers. When leaves fall, they fall on the net, and you can just lift the net off the area or shrub to remove the leaves. This could save you hours in raking time. Grass is not the only thing that should be cleared of fallen leaves. Don’t forget to clean your gutters regularly so leaves don’t accumulate and clog them or your downspouts, which will cause water to accumulate and eventually wood to rot on your house.
You mustn’t feel obligated to rake all your leaves. Another point of view on the leaf issue is that the decomposing leaves provide important habitat for wildlife species http://blog.nwf.org/2014/11/what-to-do-with-fallen-leaves/. If you have a natural area in your yard, why not leave some leaves to provide habitat for invertebrate species, including beneficial earthworms and many insects and make the birds happy. So enjoy the color while you can and think of the leaves less of a nuisance and more of a gift from nature with the added benefit of exercise.