Leaf Mulching Movement Spreads

Enthusiasm is the contagious disease infecting Tim Downey, owner of Aesthetic Landscape Care, based in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, just north of New York City. Downey is a man on a mission. He’s busy spreading the word about the positive benefits of leaf-mulching throughout towns, villages and hamlets in Westchester County, N.Y.

Tim Downey, owner of Aesthetic Landscape Care, says he’s saving time and fuel, and returning nutrients to clients’ properties by combining the use of Gator Mulching Blades with a Vulcher Mowing Kit.

“It all started about 10 years ago, I had downsized my operation and was considering what I could do to make fall cleanup less labor-intensive,” he says. “Up to that point, we had been following the same process as all landscape companies in the Northeast. We raked leaves to the curb, where they became wet and slippery hazards, and waited for municipal trucks to haul them. Or worse, we blew then into piles, vacuumed them into a truck, tarped them and hauled them away. I thought, what a waste, all that organic material being dumped.”

Downey began tweaking his commercial mowers, trying different types of mulching blades and adjusting the height on his mower deck to find the ideal range to capture leaves and shred them into a dime-size compost.

Experimenting to learn

“Leaves are full of nutrients, perfect for use in mulching flower beds or to simply leave them on the grass where they decompose and become terrific fertilizer. This made sense to most clients, but I had to develop a way to reduce the size of the mulch so that the lawn looked like it had been cleared of most of the residue,” he recalls.

At about this time, Downey started using Gator Mulching Blades. The blades are designed to work with or without mulching kits and because they are engineered to lift the material up into the underside of the deck, the clippings and leaves are cut several times reducing the material’s size considerably. With raised, serrated teeth, the Gator Blade induces a high lift, which draws the grass up, giving it a clean, even cut.

“Most mulching blades push grass down,” says Downey. “At a maximum blade tip speed, grass clippings and leaves move across the cutting edge several times, resulting in a superior mulch. The teeth on other mulching blades angle out from the blade and push the clippings away from the blade’s cutting edge, resulting in much larger clippings.

“I started reading about them, did a lot of research, and, after installing the blade, spent a lot of trial and error adjusting mower depth and speed. I had taken notes and logged the time it took for various leaf types to decompose, become part of the soil – the effects, benefits, negatives.”

Downey’s detailed notes recorded time measurements and a host of observations. He says the Gator Blades worked great, so he reasoned he might get even better results if he tried a mulching kit.

Downey researched several mulching kits and decided on the Vulcher Mulching System. The polymer kits attach to the discharge on the mower deck, causing leaves to stay aloft in the system longer, increasing the number of times the Gator Blade can mulch the materials.

It was a simple install and added the bonus of increasing safety by keeping objects from being thrown from under the mower. The blade and the mulching kit worked hand-in-glove and produced a fine mulch that was nearly imperceptible on lawns, he claims.

Spreading the word

“With a little raking, I could move some material over to flower beds for a light winter cover, helping to keep moisture in the soil, longer. It really worked great for us,” says Downey, who began sharing what he had learned with others.

“I shared my research with any contractor or person of who would stand there long enough to listen to this technique I had refined for myself. This was not a new idea that I invented, but I refined it and had the science behind me to back me up so I could spread the word. I owed it to our community to tell them about what we were doing and how well it worked,” he says.

Grasscycling and Don’t Bag It Revisited

A generation ago two programs – one national and the other regional in scope – focused on educating lawn service pros and homeowners to the benefits of mulching grass clippings and leaving them on lawns rather than bagging and trucking them away.

This came at a time when landfills across the country began refusing to accept what was then referred to as “green waste”. This included branches, tree leafs, discarded ornamentals and grass clippings. Of course, most of us realize by now that this so-called green waste is valuable organic material and should be reused and not buried in a hole in the ground.

That said, many property owners still insist that their lawn servicers remove clippings from their lawns. Sometimes it’s the only choice a mowing company has, especially in the spring when the grass is growing so high or lush, that even the best mulching mowers won’t produce an acceptable cut. In those cases, to retain the client, the mowing company must remove the clippings. The process adds an extra amount of labor, energy and cost to the job, of course.

In the early 1990s, the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA) initiated its ambitious “Grasscycling” awareness program to promote mulching grass on site. The program generated a lot of interest among lawn service pros. Some manufacturers responded by producing recycling mowers and kits that chopped grass clippings into small pieces so that they weren’t so unsightly to property owners and they would break down and return to the soil faster.

In addition to saving the time and energy needed to collect and haul clippings away, there’s another reason to leave them on properties. Grass clippings are approximately 85 percent water, but they also contain useful elements for turfgrass growth, including about 4 percent nitrogen and lesser amounts of potassium, phosphorus and trace elements. So, leaving clippings where they fall reduces the amount of these elements required to keep the turfgrass green and growing.

Simultaneous to the PLCAA program in the early 1990s, turfgrass researchers and educators at Texas A&M kicked off their “Don’t Bag It” program whose aim to encourage landscapers and property owners to mulch grass clippings.

– Ron Hall

Not a bashful type, he took his vision on the road and traveled to hamlets, villages and into towns all across northeast New York meeting with city maintenance people, environmentalists, concerned citizens, officials, townspeople and landscape pros.

“There was a lot of interest in the results we were getting. With the help of several great people, we started Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em to help promote the advantages to mulching leaves.”

Substantial savings

He says he’s generally found receptive audiences, especially among city and regional officials. Uncollected leaves were creating driving hazards and clogging sewer systems, and causing nutrient effluent into local waterways. In addition, the cost savings for governments can be substantial. For instance, Irvington taxpayers pay up to $130,000 annually. About $30,000 represent the tipping fees at the local landfill and $100,000 is labor including overtime, fuel and equipment maintenance.

The estimated cost for Greenburgh, N.Y., a city of 88,500 people, is more than $300,000. Westchester County spends about $4 million annually for trucking and disposal of leaves and grass. So, there’s a lot of money to be saved as well, says Downey.

His message resonated with Fiona Mitchell, a master gardener (Cornell Cooperative Extension), and a concerned citizen in Bedford, N.Y. She helped to establish Leave Leaves Alone, an organization described as an “educational initiative to inform homeowners and landscapers about the many advantages of mulching leaves on site.”

“Our community spends five weeks each fall, using seven trucks and seven workers, to pick up leaves that are designed to be nature’s food,” says Mitchell. “When you mulch leaves into lawns they decompose very quickly, adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil from the snow.”

This regional organization extolls the many benefits of leaves upon the environment, including the reduced use of noisy blowers that, according to Mitchell, blows away the topsoil and does more damage than good.

“Some landscape companies are resistant to change,” she claims. “They don’t understand that, with new leaf-mulching technology, they can give their clients a perfectly cleared lawn. And let’s face it, in the fall, an hour after you cleanup the lawn, more leaves have already fallen; most people are at work when maintenance companies are clearing their lawns, it’s dark when they get home and most would only notice if the yard had not been attended to.”

Customers will understand

“Besides, when you explain why mulching is so much better, customers understand and most homeowners who we speak to are very interested in mulching because it’s so much better for the environment.”

Mitchell adds that many landscape companies are also afraid that clients will expect their charges to go down because leaf mulching is so much more efficient that blowing and clearing.

In addition to their website, which informs about the value of leaves on the environment, LLE also holds workshops to inform citizens about how to adjust mowers for proper leaf mulching and why it’s important to leave the leaves on properties.

Mitchell and her group have already made significant inroads in the Bedford community.

“Our parks and recreation department and all city properties are now mulching leaves, so we’ve made some progress,” she says. “I got started when I attended a meeting held by Tim Downey. He’s spreading the message in New York about the importance of leaf decomposition and he also knows the technical aspects and can explain to homeowners and lawn care professionals how to equip their mowers properly.”

Enthusiasm shines through all the mundane research and technical information garnered from this true believer.

“I evolved my business into this practice out of a labor necessity, initially,” adds Downey. “But it makes environmental sense and can save the municipalities and the county a lot of money too. As a side benefit, a change of practice will reduce the use of blowers, hopefully, taking the heat off the industry and the momentum to ban blowers.”

Downey believes thaf if the landscape industry would use blowers in a more intelligent fashion and simply use them when they’re absolutely needed and at more appropriate power levels, and not full-boar blowing the leaves across a 2-acre piece of property, it would be in a better position to stem the tide of anti-blower sentiment.

“Autumn leaf mulching instead of blower-collecting is a first great start, and I’m here to help spread the word,” adds Downey.