Should Leaves Be Mulched On A Lawn Or Removed?

Every Fall this seems to be a common question our company gets; should leaves be mulched on a lawn or removed? The answer truly depends on a few factors, but for majority of the lawns we work on, I would suggest mulching the leaves instead of removing them. The rare exception would be lawns that have an excessive amount of mature trees, that drop an overwhelming amount of leaves. The reason (at least some) of these leaves should be removed is because mulching them into the soil will raise the acidity too high for healthy turf.

Below we will discuss a few different methods for dealing with leaves on your property.

How Many/Which Kind Of Trees Matter

Deciduous trees such as Oaks, Maples, Ashes, Magnolias and Cherry trees are some of the most common trees in Pennsylvania. A deciduous tree sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season. It contrasts with trees that are coniferous, like Holly trees or Pine trees, that do not shed all of their leaves.

The difference between deciduous and coniferous. Here is a sycamore and pine tree.
The difference between deciduous and coniferous. Here is a sycamore and pine tree.

Deciduous tree leaves, if left on the lawn during winter, will surely wreak havoc on your lawn in the spring. The leaves retain moisture from the winter rain and snow, and will not decompose as fast as mulched up leaves. This excess moisture will cause fungus and disease to spread such as brown patch and leaf spot, and will make growing healthy turf an uphill battle. Quality turf needs healthy air flow and sun exposure, which leaves directly inhibit.

Every tree sheds at a different rate, but by the first two weeks of December, almost all deciduous trees in Pennsylvania will have shed their leaves. Oak trees are one of the few exceptions to this rule. Oaks can hold their leaves into January and February which make clean up a seemingly never ending task. If you have Oak trees on your property, make sure to rake the leaves up or mulch them into the lawn frequently during November, which is a critical month for turf development.

Cherry, Maple, Ash, and Magnolia trees tend to drop all around the same time. Silver Maples are usually the first trees to completely drop their leaves, starting as early as September or October.

How To Properly Mulch Leaves On A Lawn

There is no “correct method” that a person must follow, but this is the method we’ve gotten the most success with. First, I recommend using a mower that has a chute blocker or mulching kit. This will really ensure the leaves are getting extra passes with the lawn mower blades. We use the EzChute on our commercial lawn mowing equipment and really like them.

ezchute used by Bolton Lawn Care for mowing

Second, I would consider bagging the leaves with a mower and dispersing them into garden beds or a compost section. Mulched leaves are black gold for a garden bed. We collect (no exaggeration) multiple tons of leaves with our debris loader every season that we take to our shop where they become compost. After about a year of composting, the quality of the soil that comes from these leaves is spectacular. We have a number of customers who ask us to compost the leaves instead of remove them. Pictured below is a residential lawn mowing setup we use for leaf collection.

toro grandstand with bagger used to collect leaves in the fall.

The process we recommend is as follows:

  • Using a leaf blower or rake, blow out any leaves from garden beds onto the lawn.
  • Mow the perimeter of the property with the chute down or with a bagging attachment connected.
  • If bagging the mulched up leaves, continue mowing in a square pattern along the perimeter, keeping the chute facing the middle of the lawn always. Since the mower’s bagging attachment is not perfect and will not suck up every leaf, any stragglers left behind will be sent out the chute deflection side. Mow with a 20% overlap of your previous pass. When the bagger is full, disperse evenly into garden bed areas. I STRONGLY advise against bagging leaves, only to dump them into a trash can or leaf bag. This is a waste of beautiful soil that will only rot in a landfill! Use it for your garden, or let us haul it away so it can be re-used.
  • If you are using the mulching kit or chute blocker on a mower to recycle leaves into the lawn, make sure the blades are sharp before you begin. This will reduce the amount of time spent mulching the leaves.
  • When mulching into the soil, mow the lawn at an extra slow pace, allowing the mower to repeatedly break down the leaves. Mow each pass on the lawn at least three times for proper mulching. The goal is to break down the leaves to the point where each piece of the leaf is no larger than a quarter. The lawn will absorb the nutrients from these crushed up leaves faster than if they are large leaves. If some spots on the lawn are heavier than others with leaves, take a leaf blower or rake once again and spread them more evenly.
  • The final step is to apply the correct amount of lime for your turf square footage. Lime is a completely safe and essential mineral for your lawn. Lime will reduce the acidity in your soil’s PH, and help further speed the break down of leaves.

What Lawn Care Experts Recommend

I personally think that there should be a balance of leaves mulched into the lawn, and mulched into beds. I think leaf mulch is one of the best (not to mention free!), organic materials you could add to your garden beds. I would recommend following the following schedule for leaf cleanup in the Fall for Southeastern Pennsylvania:

  • The first two-three weeks of November mulch the leaves into the lawn. Typically around Thanksgiving is when leaves really begin to drop.
  • When you notice the volume of leaves on the lawn has increased, now is the time to throw on the bagging attachment and start bagging the leaves and adding them to your garden. Keep bagging the leaves and adding to your garden until the trees are done dropping.
  • Add lime to your soil after Thanksgiving or sometime in December.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us via email! I hope you gained some value from this article and will share it with your friends and family. My goal with writing this article was to spread awareness about the value of leaf mulch, and why you should not throw it away where it will sit in a landfill.

God Bless!

-Andrew

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