Dead Leaf Debate, Part 2 – Chopping and Composting

Posted by Susan Harris

[Part 1 covered  whether to remove dead leaves in the garden.]

If you’ve decided to do something positive with your dead leaves (as opposed to, say, sending them off to the landfill) there are three terrific things to do with all that organic matter.

Chop ’em up with your mower and use them as mulch

We’ve already covered why leaving whole leaves in your flower beds may not be the best choice (and on lawns it’s definitely not).  When one local email-group discussed all the options one member posted this handy list of reasons to chop those leaves:

  • It speeds decomposition of organic material
  • It returns carbon back to the natural landscape cycle
  • It reduces turf damage/thinning from smothering leaf deposits
  • It reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in landscape beds
  • In managed woodland areas, it reduces leaf mats that can smother native herbaceous plants

The writer then anticipated a possible objection to all this chopping: “If there is a concern for using petroleum-based fuels for tools, use electric powered tools wherever possible.”

And sure enough, several others rose to object to the “considerable polluting aspects of gas lawnmowers,” and one suggested that electric mowers are not an option because they’re so expensive.  Instead she uses and recommends a “hand mower”, which I guess means a reel mower, but there are mixed reports about whether they do a good job of chopping up leaves.  And to attach some numbers to the price of electric mowers, I paid about $110 for mine, and the popular Neutron you see here costs $160.

Compost them yourself

Leaves definitely contribute to some mighty fine homemade compost, especially if you combine them with some green matter like lawn clippings for a nutritionally complete result.  But there’s disagreement about whether whole leaves compost well, and because that’s exactly what I do, I’ll weigh in – the result isn’t exactly that black gold we’re always looking for.  My compost method (such as it is) is to simply pile the leaves up and wait a year or more for them to decompose.  The problem is they never DO decompose completely because I never water or turn the pile.  (Breaking all rules, I know, but turning is hard work.)  But no matter – I use the resulting so-so “compost”, containing some noticeably uncomposted chunks, in out-of-the-way spots as mulch, or to amend the soil.

But if you want to turn dead leaves into quality compost it’s much better to chop the leaves first, and I did that for a whole season a few years back. I bought a cheap filiment-style shredder for about 100 bucks and ran all my leaves through it – and about 50 deciduous trees drop their leaves on my property, so think about the quantity of leaves we’re dealing with here! But because it was a cheap, flimsy machine, the Weedwacker-type filament broke with every twig and acorn it encountered, so approximately every five minutes I had to stop and replace the filament and the chopping process became a super headache.  If I’d spent more on a chipper-shredder the work would have gone quickly, but I judged $1,000+ to be too steep a price for faster, more uniform compost.  Another option would have been to spread all the leaves on the lawn, then mow with a mulching mower (one with a bag that collects the chopped leaves).  Sounds to me like a whole lot of work.

Yet here’s a report from a local composter who’s having a much better experience:  “I am a layperson about composting but I hand-rake leaves at our office (Anacostia Watershed Society) and wet them using a watering can to give them extra weight so that leaves are not blown away by winds. (You can skip the wetting process if you rake leaves just after a rainfall event.)  I don’t mechanically shred them.  Last fall (2008) I used this method and our horticulturist said it was good leaf compost.  No electricity needed.  Good exercise.  I didn’t use money for visiting a gym.  It takes about 10 months to make good leaf compost.”  (Thanks to Masaya at the ANS).

Thank your local guvm’t for composting them FOR you

About 20 years ago cities and counties across the U.S. began prohibiting the dumping of green waste like leaves – excellent idea! – and creating programs to collect and compost yard waste for their residents. As a result, they don’t just make good use of all that organic matter but save the money they used to spend on landfill fees.  But there’s more – they save even more money because they’re using their own homemade compost on public land instead of buying compost and fertilizer products.  All sounds very win-win, right?

Ah, but some environmental writers have risen to protest that this requires too much transportation of leaves and compost – even when the composting operation is right there in the same county.  The answer offered by one critic?  We should all compost at home.  Sounds good, but it’s just not an option for people with small yards and not enough space for a compost operation.

So Great Dead Leaf Debate ultimately reminds me of a newspaper headline I’ve seen more times than I can count:  “Environmental groups at odds over…”

Lower photo of leaf collecting on my street, followed by dumping of leafmold mulch in the spring.

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