The beauty of the fall foliage season always comes with a bit of dread for homeowners. Like it or not, those beautiful leaves are going to fall to the ground, and something must be done with them.

Some articles seem to promote the idea that people can toss their rakes away and let the leaves take care of themselves. “Why you shouldn’t rake your leaves this fall,” IFL Science – a lighthearted website for people interested in science – wrote last year.

Citing a blogpost from the National Wildlife Federation, the IFL Science article said, “This advice from the NWF will no doubt be welcomed by everyone who loathes clearing their yard during fall.”

The NWF blogpost, however, does not suggest you do nothing with your leaves. But it does strongly oppose the traditional three-step suburban practice that goes like this: “Rake leaves (or blast them with a blower) into piles, transfer the piles to bags and place the bags out to be hauled off to a landfill.”

Those practices waste energy, eat up space in landfills (if that is how the local government deals with leaves – many don’t) and deprive yards of the benefits of decomposing leaves.

What NWF wants is for people to keep the leaves on their own property; I am in total agreement.

I live in Cape Elizabeth, where the town composts its leaves and sells the compost. Many Maine municipalities do the same. But nationally, according to NWF, yard waste makes up 13 percent of solid waste, about 33 million tons a year, and when put in landfills, it decomposes without oxygen, creating methane, a greenhouse gas.

If you have a lawn, doing nothing won’t work. Fall rains will turn fallen leaves into a sodden mass of leaves on the lawn. Heavy snows will compact the leaves further, which will smother the lawn, depriving the grass of light and oxygen, killing it and requiring reseeding in the spring. That reseeding is a lot more work – and a lot more prone to failure – than raking.

The simplest NWF solution is to mow leaves on the lawn with a mulching mower, letting the finely cut leaves rot and decompose in place over the winter, providing nutrients to the lawn.

Leaves can’t be left to decompose on the lawn without risking killing the grass – but you could put them in a compost bin to become organic matter to feed your vegetable garden.

I have tried that method, and it can work if your leaves are mostly maple and birch – which are thin and decompose quickly. We have mostly oaks, which have thicker, more robust leaves, and we’ve found that it’s tough to cut them into pieces small enough to decompose on site by spring.

For the non-lawn parts of your garden, leaving the leaves in place makes sense. The method works just like the forest does, with the leaves falling to the ground, suppressing weeds, composting and feeding the soil.

Fallen leaves also help wildlife.

“Critters ranging from turtles and toads to birds, mammals and invertebrates rely on leaf litter for food, shelter and nesting material,” the NWF blogpost says. “Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.”

The article offers other methods of dealing with leaves. Mixing them with green materials like lawn clippings and composting them. Chopping them up and using the result as mulch for garden beds. Raking them into piles and letting the piles decompose into leaf mold, which isn’t true compost because it doesn’t have enough green material.

All of those methods will work if you have the right kind of garden. Our formal beds have too many ground-cover plants for us to use leaves as mulch, and the look would be a bit messy for our taste.

In past years, I have dumped leaves directly on the vegetable garden, but with the heavy prevalence of oak, the leaves hadn’t broken down enough by spring. It was impossible, using a broadfork rather than a rototiller, to mix those leaves into the soil.

So last year, I tried a new method – an experiment.

I created seven new compost bins – using 28 pallets scavenged from the dump (the town calls it the Recycling Center, but it’s still the dump to me) and packed them full of leaves. Nine or 10 months later, those leaves have been compacted so they take up half the space they did last fall, and I stomped on them vigorously. This fall, before it is time to rake, I will empty those bins, spreading what is essentially leaf mold on the vegetable garden, adding much-needed organic matter to our sandy, rocky soil.

The theory is that everyone gains. Critters are happy because they can use the leaves in the bins as well as the leaves we don’t rake in the wooded, wilder section of our yard. We get a needed garden supplement. And the town doesn’t have to deal with our leaves – or the 28 pallets I recycled.

The emptied compost bins will then get this year’s fallen leaves.

I’ll let you know how it works out: I think I can get another column out of the results.


TOM ATWELL has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at: [email protected]

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