The Plant Man column
for publication week of 10/23/05 - 10/29/05
The Plant Man
by Steve Jones
Falling leaves: love 'em or leave 'em?
There's a reason they call this season "fall." Those leaves that
look so beautiful as they turn from green to gold to crimson don't
look so attractive when they've become a sodden carpet on your lawn.
So what should you do? Rake? Mow? Mulch? Or simply leave the leaves
Let's look at the last one first. It's tempting to procrastinate
and put off dealing with those leaves "because there are still a few
that haven't fallen yet." Bad idea... for several reasons.
Freshly fallen leaves are light and brittle, making them easy to rake
or pile up with a blower. Wet, compacted leaves are heavy, difficult to
rake and almost impossible to move with a leaf-blower. Ignore the
leaves now and your chore will be even harder later!
But there's an even more important reason: disease control. A carpet
of wet leaves will prevent essential sunlight and air from reaching
your lawn and will encourage various diseases to get a grip on your
So we agree that keeping fallen leaves under control throughout the
season is your best policy. What are your options?
Before I start raking the lawn, I try to remind myself to rake all the
accumulated leaves out from the flower beds and around the various
shrubs. It can be disheartening to survey your freshly raked lawn...
and then spot the leaves, twigs and other debris you missed, lurking
under your bushes! During the winter, the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle can
cause dead grass and organic material to release soluble phosphates and
nitrates that can run off frozen ground and enter surface water.
If you start early enough, while the layer of fallen leaves is quite
light and brittle, you can simply run the mower over them. With a
regular mower, you'll probably want to make two or three passes to be
sure you've shredded the leaves into very small particles. If you
have a large area of lawn and a number of trees, you might want to
invest in a mulching mower. This machine can shred leaves virtually
into a powder. This has the added benefit of adding a natural mulch to
your lawn while saving you the labor of raking and bagging.
If you are serious about your landscape, you probably have a compost
pile. If not, this could be a good time to start one. There are
several helpful articles and previous columns on this subject archived
at my Web site, www.landsteward.org where you can scroll through the
columns under the Plant Man heading. If you have specific questions on
this subject (or any other) feel free to send an e-mail to me at
email@example.com and I'll send you a personal reply.
While you're doing your fall clean-up chores, remember to add those
fading "leggy" annuals and any vines from your vegetable garden to
the leaves in your compost so the can all cook together. Do not add
meat or bones to your compost as you're likely to attract unwanted
critters or your own pets. Diseased plants or clippings from a lawn
recently treated with a herbicide or a weedkiller should not go into
your compost either.
Even if your lawn is completely free of fallen leaves, it still needs a
little TLC at this time of year. Mow the grass so it is between two
and three inches. Why? Grass that is much longer than three inches can
mat and this can encourage winter diseases such as snow mold. Cut grass
down to less than two inches and you can adversely affect your lawn's
capability to absorb and store the nutrients it will need to come back
strong next spring.
Fertilizing your lawn
If your lawn could do with a little boost, fall is a good time to apply
fertilizer. As a rule of thumb, you'll need about one pound per
1,000 square feet of lawn. If you're a fan of organic solutions (as
I am), send me an e-mail and I'll give you some details about an
organic "turf tea" that I found recently.
If you mow 'em, mulch 'em or bag 'em, now is the time to work on
those leaves. If you listen carefully, you'll hear your lawn sighing
The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and
landscaping to firstname.lastname@example.org For resources and additional
information, or to subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter, go