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Leave your leaves

When it comes to fall clean-up, trust the science

By Barry Stahl, Mount Rainier Tree Commission

Dreading fall clean-up? The good news is that by rethinking the choices, you can do less of it and actually do more for the environment.

The City of Mount Rainier begins Fall curbside leaf collection on November 3rd. Last year, 320 cubic yards of leaves were collected in Mount Rainier at a cost of $2,800, just for dumping fees. Nationwide, 33 million tons of yard waste go into landfills each year, where it breaks down anaerobically to produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. As for recycling, Americans pay about $100 million a year for mulch, buying back the leaves and yard waste material, usually in harmful plastic bags that they ten throw away.

If you are thinking, “there must be a better way,” you would be right. There is little reason for the environmental waste and taxpayer expense of removing most yard waste from your property. Here are some science-based options and benefits to the environment.

Leave leaves on the lawn. If your lawn area has few leaves, as many do, leave them in place. What leaves there are can be mowed. The shredded leaves that are produced break down and nourish the soil and result in a better-looking lawn without the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

Collect leaves for composting.  Large amounts of leaves on the lawn will damage the turf and need to be collected. You can pile them up in a corner of the yard and let them decompose slowly, or shred some of them to add to your compost bin. Incorporating this leaf mold and compost greatly improves the heavy clay soil of our region. 

Collect leaves for mulch. You won’t find a better mulch for a garden bed than whole leaves. They will suppress weeds, conserve water, and enrich the soil. Leave them whole to provide the most benefit to insect populations and prevent disruption of the food web. Whole leaves protect beneficial insect eggs, hibernating pollinators, and caterpillars. Birds forage in the leaves for important winter and early spring food. You can even leave the leaves where you have gardened in your street tree boxes, and Public Works will intentionally skip blowing them out.

Reduce lawn size. Lawn areas are important for play and socializing. But many homes in Mount Rainier have far more backyard lawn than they need. Why not convert some of this lawn area into wildlife habitat? Choose an edge or create an island. Mow it low, cover it with cardboard or newspaper, and then with leaves, compost and grass clippings. This “sheet mulching” will be of greater benefit to the environment than lawn, but you can do even more good if you plant this area with native plants come spring. 

Make brush piles. When you prune your trees and shrubs, or harsh winds break off branches, leave them on your property. Find an out-of-the-way corner and stack the brush into a pile. You will be providing shelter for birds to hide from winter weather and predators, and nesting sites come spring. You may be surprised, as well, by more visits from frogs and toads, turtles, lizards and salamanders.

Leave flower stalks and seed heads until late spring. Tidy up your garden but leave some standing dead plant material which provides valuable life-saving resources for wildlife. Overwintering birds rely on seed heads from flowers and berries from shrubs. Pollinating insects make their winter homes in tall grasses and pithy flower stalks. Save most of your clean-up for late spring.

So, think about your clean-up choices. And if you are going to have the City collect your leaves, rake them to the curb and follow their guidelines. Be sure that you are putting out leaves only. Any branches, stones, trash or other debris have the potential to damage the equipment and to injure Public Works crew members who do the collecting. A safe and peaceful fall to us all.

Additional Resources

The Mount Rainier Food Forest demonstrates the use of leaves and other natural mulches.

An article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/realestate/fall-garden-cleanup.html

An informative and amusing video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=share&v=n9OhxKlrWwc