Dead leaves produce dollars for landscapers

Updated Sep 12, 2023
Composting is just one of the uses carbon-rich fall leaves can be used for.Composting is just one of the uses carbon-rich fall leaves can be used for.

One of the most common sights of autumn is fallen leaves. The shedding of trees’ colorful confetti is bittersweet, of course, because while the various shades of foliage are beautiful, fall also means the inevitable raking of leaves.

Many people like to avoid this work and hire landscapers to rake and remove dead leaves.  Although that job can serve as a source of revenue for your company, you may want to consider talking with your clients about the potential benefits the leaves provide.

Mow it

While a thick mat of fallen leaves is bad for a lawn, basically smothering it, this doesn’t mean leaves should never be on the lawn. Shredding the leaves will allow the turf to get the sun and air circulation it needs. Chopped leaves can help amend the soil as they decompose over the winter.

The University of Minnesota Extension cautions that this should only be done to lawns with a light covering of leaves. In other words, blades of grass should still be visible prior to shredding. It doesn’t take a heavy layer of leaves for diseases to creep in, so be sure to remove some of the fallen leaves from the lawn, even if they are shredded.

It’s always better to shred leaves when they are dry. You can run them through a shredder/chipper, mow them with a normal rotary mower, or use a specialized mulching blade.

Mulch it

A much more effective option is using fallen leaves for mulch. A thick layer of leaves is bad for the lawn, but it is extremely beneficial for trees, shrubs, and planting beds. As a mulch, they retard the growth of weeds, retain soil moisture, and protect plants from temperature fluctuations. Also, as they break down, they release their nutrients.

Oak leaves decompose much slower than other leaves and this makes them well suited for mulching. Be careful about using certain kinds of leaves. Obviously, leaves with diseases such as apple scab, anthracnose or leaf spot should be destroyed altogether, while some trees have leaves that actually inhibit plant growth. Walnut, eucalyptus, and camphor laurel have leaves like this.

It is best to shred the leaves you plan to use for mulching. Hydrangeas and roses are good examples of plants that can benefit from mulched leaves.

Pile it

You can also use a close cousin of mulching – piles of dead leaves – to protect living plants. Hardy potted plants that are weathering the cold outdoors should be clustered together on a sheltered side of the house. Piles of dried leaves can be placed over, under, and in between the pots to create an insulated cover.

A 6-inch blanket of leaves can protect tender plants and also can be used to keep your client’s cool-weather vegetables safe. Even placing shredded leaves on empty beds can help prevent weeds from taking over and slow compaction of the soil. 

Compost it

Composting may be intimidating to some of your customers and the practice is often misunderstood. There are multiple benefits that come from composting, such as reducing waste that ends up in landfills and creating an organic fertilizer right in the backyard.

Leaves are an excellent organic material to compost due to their high carbon content. Mixed with grass clippings rich in nitrogen, this compost will be ready for use by late spring. According to the Colorado State Extension, you can also use fertilizer (be sure it doesn’t contain weed killer) to add the needed nitrogen for decomposition.

Mold it

No, not mold as in shape it, but let it become leaf mold. This option probably takes the least amount of effort but the most amount of time. Leaf mold is basically wet leaves that have decomposed into a soil-like substance that is nutrient-rich and can help reduce rainwater runoff.

The process of turning dead leaves into leaf mold can take one to three years, depending on how much attention it’s given. Shredded leaves will break down more quickly and fresh fallen leaves also speed decomposition because they haven’t been leeched of nitrogen.

Leaf mold piles should be kept moist and the pile should be substantial — at least 3 feet high. If your client is concerned they’ll blow away, suggest a wire enclosure.

And finally, if a given customer simply wants the carpet of fallen leaves raked and removed, there’s certainly nothing wrong with removing them to your place of business and adding them to your company’s stock of mulch or compost for use in later planting and lawn-maintenance work. 

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