Save Time Raking: Mulch Your Leaves

By: Judy Kinshaw-Ellis, Virginia Cooperative Extension , Water Quality Program Assistant

Hot and dry then wet and cool, the weather has not been too predictable this year. However, one thing that is certain is the leaves will fall. In fact, the process has started, which makes homeowners ask what to do with them. Leave the leaves because they will provide soil nutrients and feed the turf, but first they need to be mulched.
The time to mulch leaves is when there are enough leaves on the ground that grass is just showing through. "When using a mower to shred leaves, it is important to remember that it is not intended to be a wood chipper - remove any sticks or other debris from the lawn prior to mulching in order to protect yourself, others, your mower, and your property," advises Mike Goatley, PhD, Virginia Tech professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist. Also consider wearing eye protection and proper footwear. Goatley adds, "Mulching works best when the leaves are slightly moist in order to reduce concerns with dust." To mulch leaves, mow over them once, and if they are not chopped enough with one pass, mow over them again, mowing at a right angle to the first mowing. Successive mowings will further chop the leaves and aid in decomposition.
Virginia Cooperative Extension strongly discourages bagging unless the leaves are overwhelming. "Ideally," Goatley explains, "We want to keep leaves out of our landfills, so consider composting them whenever possible." If the leaves get deep enough that they are matting or the lawn is covered, raking them to either use them for mulch around your trees or in your flower beds may be required. Whether bagging, mulching, or composting, chopping the leaves first with either a mower or lawn vacuum will speed decomposition.
Mulching leaves also works best for healthy lawns that get plenty of sun. Shaded areas tend to struggle to grow dense turf, and a leaf cover can further reduce the sun the lawn gets.
As the mulched leaves decompose over the fall and winter, they will add beneficial organic matter to the soil. Over time, this increase in soil organic matter will likely improve the quality of any plant materials and reduce the occurrence of weeds or diseases. The amount of organic material can also be determined through a soil test, which will give pH and mineral levels. Soil test kits are available through Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the James City County Office offers soil testing as a part of Turf Love, a Healthy Virginia Lawns program.
Leaving significant depths of matted leaves on lawns is nothing more than heavy shade to the turfgrass and a great environment for disease. Put these leaves to work by mulching them back into the lawn. The practice has many benefits including saving time by not raking, and it may save money by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. Mulching leaves will benefit a healthy lawn.
Do you want to know more? Call the James City County Virginia Cooperative Extension Office at 757-564-2170.

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