Gardeners are encountering many articles lately espousing the practice of leaving leaf debris in the garden. This advises a return to natural practices and can make a lot of sense. It’s not straightforward with one correct approach however.
Let’s look at the pros and cons. Hopefully this analysis can help you decide if the practice works for you since it is not a straightforward choice.
In large areas leaves can be moved under bushes and around trees into protective circles where they can break down naturally, create habitat for the bugs that feed our birds, act as a natural mulch to conserve water, and eventually break down to return nutrients back to our gardens. They also act as a natural weed deterrent in the meantime.
Layers of leaves eventually break down into a layer called leaf mold which is similar to peat moss and can hold a lot of moisture. This can be used in raised beds and pots instead of mining for peat moss in wild areas.
This saves a lot of time and cost during the removal period in winter and creates a natural process in your yard.
It will also change the appearance of your garden and this must be taken into account.
We have experimented with varying levels of leaf mulching for years and in our experience it has been successful in some ways and not others.
One thing to keep in mind is that birds and squirrels love this layer to forage in. This is a joy to watch but their daily sifting and disturbing of the leaf layer means leaves will be floating around your landscape all year. Some gardens can maintain a completely natural appearance in this state. Backyards with large beds, lawns that get vacuumed often, beds mulched with arborist chips, and side yards that have hard boundaries like houses or fences work well for this.
Smaller feature beds, especially beds bordered by walkways or driveways, will be ejecting leaf litter onto those hard surfaces and need cleaning all year rather than once at the end of winter. This results in a net gain of maintenance time.
We have been experimenting with adding a thick layer of mulch on top of this leaf bed to put it “to rest” for the year. Our best practices were thwarted year after year by contented birds scratching and pecking their favorite meals out and squirrels searching for those hidden treats they left there.
Again, a joy to watch and all part of the natural process we felt proud to contribute to.
The end result was always leaves pulled up to the surface, mulch sifting down to lower levels, and wind reversing our careful efforts to keep leaves from being tracked into houses and blowing into storm drains. We found ourselves sweeping and blowing all year long.
An argument could be made that removal of those leaves is actually fairly quick in November/ December. They are taken to a facility that is designed to compost them along with the rest of our yard waste efficiently.
So we pay to rake and remove them, pay for the facility to take them, then buy the end product back? Yes. This may sound like waste to some of us and perfect order to others.
An alternative is to compost them ourselves (which also takes time and space) or leave them in place for nature to process and small animals to play with.
It’s a conundrum. Nature doesn’t often allow a linear right and wrong so we encourage our clients to request the practice that feels right for them, suits their space, and helps them enjoy their garden the most. There are many right answers. Sometimes that’s the most difficult but also the most playful truth of gardening.
Our years of playful maintenance practices have left us with a preference for balance.
Allowing leaves to stay in large beds under bushes and around trees is a great beneficial practice that causes little disturbance and conserves time and energy.
Removing them from smaller beds near walkways and other hard surfaces conserves time in the long run and preserves a clean, orderly appearance all year. Using well crafted compost mulch to replace leaves in these areas is a good balance of effort and preserves accents of order within nature’s wabi sabi.
Converting beds to arborist chip mulches create a natural setting that holds leaf litter well without showing it. The leaves blend very easily into this visual camouflage and don’t present as a mess out of place.
We have become huge fans and advocates of this natural mulch. Please ask us about arborist chips or check out Linda Chalker-Scott’s article explaining them. https://pubs.extension.wsu.edu/using-arborist-wood-chips-as-a-landscape-mulch-home-garden-series
One last side note: there are also certain bacteria (?) pathogens (?) that, when present, will affect your trees so arborists and tree care folks recommend removing them when your tree is showing signs of being stressed by one problem or another. Those pathogens can incubate in the leaf layer and then release back to the tree and affect it further. This is not very common but we have had clients lose a tree due to this and then save the one next to it by starting this practice of careful consistent removal. It is a very real possibility and requires a little acceptance of occasional natural issues. Careful attention to the health conditions of your trees can help manage this issue.
Arborchips hide leaves far better than compost mulch