Leave The Leaves? Yes & No. Here’s The Best Approach For Healthy Grass.

Composting or mulching leaves in place may be a better compromise for yards with turfgrass.

leave leaves
Fall leaves carpet a yard in Minnesota. Photo: AdobeStock/Jill Greer

There’s a movement today among environmental groups and well-intended property owners to “leave the leaves.” Reasons are various from supporting overwintering eggs of beneficial moths and insects (critical to food supply for birds in Spring) to the nutrient properties decaying leaves supply to the soil. And while this is true, it’s often overlooked in material purporting this concept that a thick layer of leaves left on turfgrass can block light and stunt grass growth.

So what’s the best solution without sacrificing the lawn? As always, a compromise. Leaves can be raked into flower beds for a natural Winter “blanket” or they can be put in a compost pile in a corner of the yard to naturally decompose and be used for later soil enhancement. According to the NY Times, some towns, like Maplewood, NJ , even do the composting for its residents. It has a municipal leaf composting program that recycles the leaves and turns them into compost.

For a yard debris recycling method used by a landscaper, check out this article from Bill Adams, owner of Southern Landscape Pros in Willow Spring, NC. After spending countless hours each week taking yard debris from client properties to the landfill, exacting a significant toll on time and gas for the trucks, he began an entirely new venture—recycled soil—that took off in a major way in terms of quality and cost-savings.

In lieu of client or municipal composting solutions, however, landscapers may find a workable compromise for leaves in the article below. Tim Downey, president of Aesthetics Landscape Care, Inc., in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, describes his quest to find the best way to mulch leaves onsite at client properties, effectively cutting the leaves into tiny pieces that nearly disappear as they filter into the turfgrass. (While avoiding the landfill, and taking advantage of leaf nutrients, one could argue it still puts a certain amount of overwintering eggs at risk, however, due to the cutting process.) Turf originally ran the full article in 2021 and I’ve been using part of Downey’s method ever since. After I rake leaves into flower beds and fill my composter to max capacity, I mulch the remainder left on my grass by running it over with my mower several times. Downey’s exact method for professional landscapers is more equipment- and task-specific for efficiency when handling multiple properties. See below.

Photo: Adobe Stock/www.paulmassiephotography.com

By Tim Downey

For landscapers, Fall is one of the hardest working seasons of the year with shorter daylight hours, large projects wrapping up, and the tsunami of leaves which “need” attending. But what if the annual ritual of leaf clean-ups was reexamined? What about a simpler method, with a better understanding of the entire landscape, that leads to less labor, more profit, and satisfied customers?

In 2003, while in the woods, I noticed there was  virtually no leaf litter on the forest floor. I looked more closely, and noticed the remnants of skeletonized leaves—and lots of worm cast. I had never thought about what happens to leaves in the woods. In the landscape business, aren’t we suppose to understand and value soil? Does it make sense to handle a leaf over and over again—blowing it across a property, loading it with a vacuum, driving it on a truck, then dumping it somewhere else? I realized then and there, I needed to be doing things differently, but how?

Over the next five years, I experimented with mulching and blade types as well as keeping a catcher on my machine to hold the leaves under the deck for further processing. I would scatter the more finely chopped leaves in planting beds, etc—recording  what things looked like by Spring. By 2008, I’d figured out a system. Mulched leaves, which take up only about one-tenth the space of whole leaves—stayed on site, with nothing removed.

Be it ecological, profit, labor time savings, or shortening the use of blowers and noise, it’s a system I believe deserves consideration. Many companies I’ve taught mulch mowing have sold their vacuums, cut disposal costs by 70% or more, and seen profitability soar. They’re also returning a valuable resource back to the land. This process simply takes the right combination of attachment, blade, and method.

The right attachment. As to a mulching attachment, the Vulcher 2 by Innovated Mulching Technology is my choice. Vulchers are available to fit all commercial mowers; and depending on size, generally cost less than $300. The Vulcher 2, in combination with proper blades, traps leaves and enables multiple impacts for fine shredding.

leavesProper mulching blades, in conjunction with a device that traps leaves for repeated blade strike, is key. If you simply put mulching blades on and spit leaves out, you cut them in half or quarters at best. It’s essential to be able to process the leaves with enough blade hits, which is why having a quick and versatile attachment like the Vulcher is so handy. You control clipping flow and discharge. Closing off the discharge, not completely, just enough to process the leaves but not create an airtight back pressure, is what you want.

We don’t ever “bag.” On the properties we care for, we’ve educated our clients on the benefits of not bagging, explaining how clippings are often (in the Northeast) 70% water by volume/weight and will shrink down in the sun and be lost into the lawn.

The right blade & approach. When purchasing a leaf mulching blade, make sure you get the right kind. The direction of the teeth is important. You don’t want blades whose mulching teeth do not “yield” and bend away from the direction of contact; you want the opposite. You want the teeth to aggressively drive into the leaves. Gator blades, or similar, are worth every penny and pay for themselves because of the way they shred leaves on initial contact.

As to method, I actually timed myself over several years using different tactics and came away with a formula. Now, with my helpers, we do what I call the “rolling chop.” Each man has a role. Initially, we’ll all hit the ground and start forming up the piles/windrows. When I see the right amount, I drop off and start mulching, while the other men continue to stage the leaves. Then, one or more men also drop off to “dust off” the mulched leaves behind me. The key is to all end about the same time. The team works in a continuous circle flow, with no wasted steps.

The most inefficient work method is to have a man blow, stop, grab a rake and tarp, change over to lifting and loading or vaccing, then go back to blowing. No one likes the constant change. Once you start to flow with your role, be it chop, prep, or dust off, that’s it. You can pace yourself without lifting, changing over, and taking unproductive steps. This is not grueling. It’s simply uninterrupted rhythm and flow. My men prefer this type of approach BY FAR!

The right prep. Even with the right equipment, if you simply do the process the same way as vac and tarp, making huge piles you think you can stomp on and hit with a mower, it won’t work. You will fail and walk away unconvinced. It’s all about the size and height of the leaf piles.

I instruct my staff to keep it no taller than a foot or so. I’ll push down on the mower handles lifting the deck going over the pile on the initial pass, then drop the deck down on subsequent passes. If you simply make a 3′ pile, you’ll bulldoze into the pile and it will be a mess. You have to keep the mower deck atop the low piles. For ZTR mowers you likely have to have the windrows even lower, otherwise you’ll bulldoze the leaves as they pile up over the mower deck. Just plowing into a pile of leaves on a ZTR ride-on won’t work. I learned that in about 10 seconds in 2003.

Two tips for ride-ons: 1. Either back over the pile, initially taking a half deck at a top. This way your large back tires flatten the leaves and get under the deck more easily. 2. And/or take swing passes at the windrow, again half a deck. Your front tire will flatten leaves and the vacuum from the mower deck pulls leaves into the blades. Another option is to initially process with a walk behind (I use a Velke Sulky) to get the pile down lower and you move to the next pile while the ZTR man does the fine process work.

With the right equipment and method, it only takes time to gain confidence. Begin small and expand on success. Have a profitable Fall rally!

Downey is the President of Aesthetics Landscape Care, Inc., located in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, and has been working in the landscape industry for more than 40 years. Further information can be found on two websites where Downey is the chief technical educator, trainer, and contributor: www.leaveleavesalone.org/ and www.leleny.org.


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