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Mulch Those Fall Leaves Back Onto the Lawn

The best use of leaves? For playing in, of course!

In most of the places I’ve lived in the Northeast, fall leaves are a fact of life. Even if you don’t have any large deciduous trees on your property, chances are your neighbors’ trees will send some spent foliage your way.

Some folks consider that to represent agonizing work; for others, though, the leaves bring an opportunity for both their own physical and landscape fitness — a last-chance outdoor opportunity before winter.

To be clear: Think of leaves as free fertilizer or free mulch. They offer all sorts of benefits for the soil, which in turn benefits the lawn and other plants. So before you panic about all the work ahead, let’s look at a few strategies:

ON THE LAWN — Depending on the volume of leaves, the best option may be to chop up the leaves with your rotary mower and just let (leave) them be. You’ll need to use the rotary mower because the “reel” mowers don’t do a good job in this regard.

Simply chopping up the leaves with the lawn mower is the best thing to do for a relatively thin layer. It may even reduce your weed population next spring.

The chopping action of the rotary blades will cut the leaves into small pieces that will break down quickly, especially in an organic lawn environment where the soil is full of earthworms and microbes. An oft-cited study from Michigan State University long ago concluded that the mulched leaves have great nutrient value — and may in fact also provide some herbicidal activity. Yes, the data actually shows that the lawns where leaves were mulched in place had fewer dandelions the next season. That’s possibly due to the higher levels of available calcium that the leaves bring to the soil.

Common sense does come into play here. If the leaves are so thick that they’re constantly clogging the mower, or you’re essentially plowing the leaves with your machine, then you may want to use the bagging attachment on your mower, or look at other collection options. Thick layers of leaves, even thick layers of mulched leaves, will almost certainly lead to dead areas on the lawn next spring.

RAKING — If you’re like most people, you probably disdain the very notion of raking. The process can be seen as long, laborious, tedious. You name it. I can’t say I love raking, but I’m sure that raking is the most environmentally friendly leaf-collection option. Moreover, raking is usually the fastest way to get the leaves from the lawn to the compost pile — and it’s definitely great exercise for your body. Raking burns about 300 calories an hour while toning your arms and strengthening your back and legs. Just be sure to stretch first and, to avoid muscle pulls, don’t try to do the whole yard at once.

This rake doesn’t clog and the rubber grip is easy on the hands.

You’ll need to consider three primary tools before beginning your raking regimen. The first is the rake itself and you can probably find 50 or so varieties to choose from and some are much better than others. Here are two I like: 1) Yard Butler manufactures what it calls “the world’s greatest rake” at http://www.yardbutlerstore.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=31&products_id=71&PHPSESSID=a5a17480bec627b4ee4efd0f673c7dfb. I don’t know that it’s the greatest, but the flexible tines cover all sorts of terrain and garden beds; and the rake won’t break even if you step on the tines in cold weather. If you live in areas of cold-weather autumns like I do, this attribute is huge; 2) I do wish the Yard Butler were a bit wider.

I prefer a rake that’s 30 inches wide so I can cover a good swath of lawn. In that regard the Ames clog-free rake, above, with a cushioned grip is as comfortable and efficient as it gets. Two pointers, though. Paint the exposed wood on the handle and then reinforce it with duct tape to avoid having to replace the handle after a few uses. Also, avoid using the rake when temperatures are well below freezing. The resin tines will crack and break. Also, shop the price on this particular rake; I’ve seen it vary by as much as $15.

The second consideration in raking is a tarp for collection of the leaves. Forget the wheelbarrow or plastic bag; filling those will make the job slow and tedious. If you must bag them because you just don’t have a place to compost the leaves, then use a biodegradable paper bag instead of plastic. If you’re not sure what I mean, check out this video we produced for Good Morning America: abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=8789909.

Ideally, you can rake your leaves onto a lightweight tarp at least 10 feet by 10 feet in size; it’s easy work to drag the pile of leaves to the compost pile or bin. No matter what anyone tells you, I can guarantee that raking and tarping is the most efficient and earth-friendly leaf collection system on the planet.

The final tool to consider is comfortable gloves. If you have office hands, like I do at certain times of the year, you’ll almost certainly get blisters on your hands if you don’t wear gloves. You can find cheap utility gloves that will wear out, and you can find plenty of uncomfortable gloves that will make your hands sweat or cramp.

POWER EQUIPMENT — Given the disdain that most people feel for raking, the power equipment industry has offered up a vast array of options that, at least ostensibly, are supposed to make the leaf collection task easier. I can tell you from experience that most blowers and suction systems won’t save you a minute — and that all of them are worse for the planet, for your wallet and waistline.

Having said that, here are some options to consider if you feel you must collect your leaves with something other than a rake:

YOUR LAWN MOWER — For thin layers of leaves, simply mulching the leaves with your mower is a great way to return the nutrients from the leaves back into the soil. I use my Black & Decker battery-powered mower, above, with a mulching blade for this purpose throughout the fall season, well before the oak leaves drop onto the lawn to form a thick blanket that no mower could handle. The company even has a self-propelled battery model these days if you really don’t like the exercise that much!

Mulching mower blades with serraded wings do an excellent job of chopping the leaves into smaller pieces that biodegrade quickly.

Side discharge mowers can also be useful, even with a fairly thick layer of leaves. I usually begin mowing on the perimeter of the lawn and aim the chute toward the center. That reduces the area of leaves that I need to collect with my rake.

POWER BLOWERS — These devices, powered by either an electric, propane or gasoline engine, force streams of air out a long tube, thereby allowing you to blow the leaves in a certain direction. They are available in hand-held, shoulder-strap or wheel-mounted models depending on the size of your job.

For the average size lawn, power blowers are complete overkill. As I said above, the rake-and-tarp method is going to be the fastest, most reliable method of collecting your leaves. I do own a hand-held battery powered blower from B&D — which I use to blow off my walkway and driveway, or to get leaves out from behind shrubs. I love it and, since it’s rechargeable electric, it’s quieter and vastly less polluting than gas models. One charge provides about 40 minutes of use on the 18-volt battery.

I have written off the other gas-powered blowers as a matter of principle. They’re just too loud, too polluting and generally disruptive to my quiet neighborhood. I would especially avoid any gasoline models that require mixing two-stroke oil. These devices, used for just a half hour, emit more volatile organic carbons (VOCS) than a car driven for several ours.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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