Tree Leaves – Are They Treasure or Trash?

The old saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. It was never more true than with tree leaves. Soon they will be raining down (if they haven’t already) and you can cast your vote. Perhaps a case can be made for both perspectives.

First, the treasure. Tree leaves provide a small amount of nitrogen and other nutrients when ground up with a lawn mower and recycled back to the turf or when composted and later incorporated into a veggie or flower garden. They also provide much needed organic matter, especially for compacted, heavy clay soils, which are common in landscapes less than 30 years old. When these soils are tested by a laboratory, the reports almost always reveal the same thing – they are low in organic matter and heavy in clay. In other words, leaves are the raw materials for what turf, tree and garden soils need the most.

Now, the trash. Tree leaves must be collected and processed in some way; after all that’s why they’re called “yard waste”. The choices are to rake them by hand, suck them up with a leaf vacuum or mow them into a bagging attachment. The operative word of “waste” comes into play when they are discarded, most commonly at the curb on trash day.  Depending on the waste collection routine of the municipality or SID, there could be limits on how many bags or containers that can be collected by the waste hauler. The silver lining to the trash cloud is that once they’re at the curb, they can be kissed goodbye.

A classic phrase uttered by a cast member in the 80’s movie Trading Places – “Can’t We Have Both?” – applies to tree leaves…they can be both trash and treasure? Sure. How? Several ways:

–Leaves can be easily processed by a lawn mower and returned back to the lawn without picking them up. Up to 2 inches of leaves can be chewed up by a quality “mulching mower”, eliminating the need for disposal and gaining the benefit of the organic matter and nutrient addition at the same time.

–Leaves can be processed by a mower, collected in the bagger attachment, dumped into a wheelbarrow, then wheeled to the compost pile. If turned monthly, this mix of chewed up leaves and the grass clippings that come along for the ride will turn into compost aka “Black Gold” by the middle of next summer.

–Leaves can also be collected and used as mulch for new plantings of flowers, trees and shrubs. A two inch layer of mulch will help retain moisture over the winter and reduce fluctuations in wintertime temperatures. One caveat with mulching – be sure to avoid placing it against a tree trunk, which could create good conditions for mice, voles and other critters to damage woody plant stems. A white pvc collar will help to keep them separated from the trunk. These materials are lighter than wood chips, so it’s likely that they will need to be replaced a few times before next spring…but then that’s just a great way to use them up and consider them more of a treasure than trash!


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