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Desiring a Healthier Lawn? Opt for a More Environmentally Friendly Yard Instead of Bagging Fall Leaves the Lazy Way

Autumn heralds the spectacle of stunning gold, yellow, and orange leaves cascading from the trees onto our yards. However, the subsequent laborious chore of raking them up and determining their fate looms. SciLine engaged in an interview with Susan Barton, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Delaware, who asserts that adopting a more laid-back approach is, in fact, beneficial for both your garden and the critters inhabiting it.

Here are some key points from the interview, with responses edited for conciseness and clarity:

Is it acceptable to leave leaves undisturbed on a landscaped property, or should mulching always be employed?

Susan Barton: A layer of leaves on the lawn can block sunlight, which is detrimental to the grass. Therefore, when leaves fall, either rake them up or use a lawn mower to chop them into finer pieces that can filter down through the grass blades. However, if the leaves accumulate in landscape beds, or under trees, shrubs, and larger plants, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave them without mulching.

What advantages does mulching leaves offer compared to removing them?

Susan Barton: Leaves contain nutrients and serve as a source of organic matter. Allowing leaves to return to the landscape provides plants with nutrients and enhances soil structure with organic matter.

In forests, where leaves naturally decompose and return to the soil annually, the resulting soil is exceptionally rich. By permitting this process in landscape beds, you can enjoy the same benefits.

How can one prevent leaves from blowing across properties?

Susan Barton: Reducing leaf size significantly minimizes blowing. You can achieve this by mowing over leaves on the lawn where they fall or by raking them into piles and then mowing them. Leaf vacuums are also available; they vacuum, chop up, and collect leaves in a bag, which can then be spread over landscape beds.

What are the environmental advantages of leaving leaves in place?

Susan Barton: Disposing of leaves in plastic bags to be taken to landfills prevents them from decomposing and returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil. This transforms a potential resource into a problem.

Additionally, many insects overwinter in leaf litter, providing a critical food source for birds and other animals. Allowing insects to overwinter supports bird populations and pollinators that contribute to plant reproduction.

When is the best time to fertilize lawns?

Susan Barton: Fall is ideal for fertilizing lawns because that’s when turf grass primarily develops roots, promoting healthy, dense lawn growth. Fertilizing in spring stimulates leaf growth, leading to more frequent mowing. Fertilizing in fall is beneficial when chopping up leaves, as it introduces the chopped leaves back into the soil. It’s advisable to add additional fertilizer along with the leaf litter.

How can people enhance their lawns and make landscaping more eco-friendly?

Susan Barton: Rather than adhering to the traditional suburban lawn, consider designing areas for play and gathering, reserving the remaining space for other purposes. This approach is more environmentally sensitive, offering various ecosystem services such as improved water infiltration and air quality. A landscape with ground cover, a shrub layer, a small tree layer, and a large tree layer contributes more to carbon dioxide removal from the air than a plain lawn.

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