Fall Clean-Up

A Rolling Leaf Gathers No Moss

It’s that time of year again! Frost hits, the colorful leaves on the trees start to fall, the grass stops growing… It’s autumn, no doubt about it! And fall brings with it a series of tasks to be accomplished: closing the pool, bringing in frost-sensitive plants, installing winter protection (for those who still believe in it)… And raking up fallen leaves. Collecting autumn leaves is above all a necessity to maintain your lawn. Leaves falling on a flower bed or vegetable garden aren’t a big deal. Iin fact, raking perennials with a leaf rake causes more damage than leaving them there! But they are when they fall on the lawn. If they remain there all winter, especially if they form an impenetrable layer that cuts off all light, the lawn will be seriously damaged.

Two Ecosystems at War

It’s an old war between two ecosystems: the forest and the prairie. The forest tries to smother the prairie to take its place, and the prairie tries to expand into the forest to dominate it. It’s a war that goes back millions of years, and the front is still active in Western Canada (and now on your land too). Indeed, in the West, beyond a certain limit, not enough rain falls to maintain the forest and the prairie invades and dominates the habitat. And just on the other side of this boundary, it’s the opposite: there’s enough rain to maintain the forest, and the latter then uses its leaves to smother the prairie grasses and better take its place.

In our regions, where rainfall is abundant, it’s always the forest that wins… unless you help the prairie. Where I come from, the meadow-grassland is an artificial environment maintained by mowing… and leaf collection. If you leave the leaves where they are and don’t mow, the forest will grow back.

But How Do You Pick Up the Leaves?

Leaf collection methods vary from person to person. Some prefer the good old leaf rake, others the vacuum blower, others the lawn mower.

Photo: Getty Images

The leaf rake does a good job of pushing the leaves into a pile, but loses points in the process. Normally, you have to pick them up by hand and put them in a bag that refuses to stay open… You know the problem. There are two ways to collect leaves with a blower-vacuum. You can gather them into a pile with the blower, but then again, you have to pick them up! Or they can be sucked into the attached bag. The latter action also shreds the leaves (this happens automatically), greatly reducing their volume. But it’s noisy. And the leaves have to be more or less dry, otherwise the vacuum blocks.

The lawnmower can do the same job: collect and shred the leaves, depositing them in a bag… if your mower has a bag. If not, you can shred the leaves and push them into flowerbeds, under shrubs or into the undergrowth, directing the mower jet towards these areas.

What to Do With the Leaves?

Throw them away, you might say. That’s what a lot of people still do… and then in the spring, they go out and buy compost for their flower beds, compost made from their own leaves! In fact, these days, leaves should no longer be “thrown away” as such, otherwise we risk bogging down landfill sites or overloading incinerators. Instead, we put them in clearly marked bags so that they can be recycled as compost. Or you can use them for yourself.

You can start by composting the leaves you’ve saved. Put the shredded leaves in the composter… but not too much at a time. Half green products, half brown products: that’s the basic rule of home composting. But since most people’s brown matter consists mainly of leaves, and they all arrive at the same time, it’s best to keep bags of shredded leaves to feed your composter in summer, when green matter dominates. Then it’ll be easier to do your half-and-half.

Leaves as Mulch

The most convenient way, however, is to use the leaves as mulch. Shred them and place them in your flower beds, vegetable garden, under your trees and shrubs, etc. Not only will this mulch play its traditional role of keeping the soil more moist, protecting plants from the cold and preventing weeds, it will also decompose fairly quickly while enriching the soil. In fact, the shredded leaves used as mulch WILL BECOME compost, nourishing your soil without you having to do a thing.

Photo: James Andrews de Getty Images

This method (using the leaves as free mulch-fertilizer) makes the most sense to me. But I’m sure we’ll still see plenty of bags of leaves lining the streets this fall, bags from people who’d rather pay twice than not at all – pay to have the leaves collected, a service you pay for through your taxes, and pay to buy compost in the spring. It’s a weird world, isn’t it?

Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on October 26, 2003.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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