Is Leaf Litter Good or Bad? I'm Confused . . .

ponderinstuffJune 17, 2007

As a new gardener I'm very confused about the whole leaf thing. I have read that fallen, decomposed leaves are great for your soil. Then I read that I should 'rake up leaf litter to prevent diseases'.

Same thing with grass clippings; A friend told me he bags up all his grass clippings when he mows because it looks terrible if it remains on the lawn. Then I read somewhere else that it's good for the lawn to leave the clippings on there after mowing.

And then there's the mulch. Mulch is good, right? Isn't it good for a variety of reasons including the fact that it eventually decomposes and enriches the soil? If that's true, then why have I heard that I should rake up old mulch in the spring? Shouldn't it stay there until it is totally decomposed?

Can someone enlighten me once and for all?

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jbann23(6 RI)

Good questions. Leaf litter can generate a few funguses and I'm sure bacteria. I don't think they're all bad. Leaf litter makes great compost though and the price is right. Grass clippings when dry are a bit unsightly if you're after a nice green lawn setting. Leaving them there eventually breaks down and feeds the living grass - right price again. Mulch should be turned under in the fall so it'll be broken down by spring. If turned under in the spring it can tie up nitrogen for a while. That's why it's suggested you rake it up in the spring, so's you can get at the soil for planting, etc. Fresh mulch looks better too and the old can be composted. Hmmm, everything recycled - good deal. Hope this clears things up a bit. Best Regards.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2007 at 11:51AM
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val_s(z5 central IL)

I agree, your questions are good ones. The problem is that there are people on both sides of the fence on every one of your questions. That might make it even more confusing for you. All you can do really is to read the responses, seach the internet and maybe check out some gardening books at the libraty and try what makes sense for you and your yard/garden.

On your first question regarding leaves; I rake them up simply because I would rather use them in my compost and also I don't like the looks of them laying in the yard.

On your question regarding grass clippings; I have a mulching attachment that half-as* mulches them back into the yard. I do this because of the reason jbann stated. Sometimes though, I don't get to the yard like I should and even the crappy mulching blade doesn't cut it. When that happens, I rake what I can up and throw it in the compost pile.

The last question about mulch; This one is tougher for me. I've usually got so many other things going that I'm lazy about mulch. I've got it in all our beds to help with moisture retention and I just leave it there and add more on top when the need arises. The one thing I did different this year was to rake up the old mulch in some of the beds so that I could put down some black mulch I had gotten real cheap. The old mulch went right into the other beds that still had the natural colored stuff and what ever was left over went into the compost pile.

I'm not sure about the tilling it into the soil. Most of my beds are established and couldn't be tilled in even if I wanted to, and raking is out as it is also a BIG fat pain, hence the adding more onto the exsiting way I do it.

Anyway, don't let it confuse you and just try what works for you. If it doesn't work or you don't like it, try a different way.


    Bookmark   June 17, 2007 at 12:24PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Some of the confusing answers you get are because the folks questioned have different goals.

EX: The neighbor who loves his manicured golf-course-looking lawn isn't going to want his leaves and grass laying there decomposing and feeding the lawn. So he bags it all up. If he composts it and feeds it back to the lawn or garden beds - great! He gets the best of both worlds. If he just trashes it and pays a company to spray his lawn - not great! ;(

Mulch is good - yes. It's great, but again people have different goals and unfortunately some see it as an either/or choice; appearance vs. improved soil. It can easily be both.

This is not to say that either approach is flat out wrong - just different strokes for different folks. ;) So once you decide what your primary goals are the confusion will disappear.


    Bookmark   June 17, 2007 at 1:10PM
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yardenman(z7 MD)

Digdirt - I agree that the confusing answers are because of different goals.

I used to feed my grass with fertilizer, now I feed the lawn soil with the mow-shredded leaves and grass clippings instead. I just add some corn gluten once a year. Of course, that means I don't have the grass and leaves for composting any more. Well, I discovered that the shredded free "mulch" the County offers makes poor mulch but breaks down into a decent compost after a year. So now my compost is free year-old mulch. My compost bins collect weed and old stems instead of grass and leaves, and I put all my critter-tempting kitchen waste into a closed tumbler.

But that's all because I'm no longer trying to grow grass with fertilizer but enriching the lawn soil instead. I don't care if the lawn has grass clippings on it for a few days. It goes away. Especially because I mow my grass higher than my neighbors. It seems I have fewer dandelions from doing this, too.

Similarly, I used to mow and bag the shredded leaves in my wooded part of my yard for composting. Then I realized that I was removing nutrients that the trees naturally recycle for their continued use. So I still shred them with the mower (to keep them from blowing away and collecting at the fence where they smother plants and give winter cover to the voles).

Everything is a trade-off of sorts. The solution to MY equation was to pretty much leave stuff where it fell and bring in free material (the County mulch) from outside. If my neighbors want to bag up their leaves and grass clippings and let me get it for free the next year, I'm OK with that!

But different people want different things and I'm sure my neighbors are just as thrilled that the County comes and picks up their grass and leaves and fallen branches "for free" so they can have the clean lawns they like. :)

    Bookmark   June 17, 2007 at 2:09PM
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Anyone that thinks leaves and grass clippings are bad for soils simply does not understand what soils need. The single best thing anyone can put in their soil is the elaves and grass clippings that are generated from that soil, "stuff" that has been taking nutrients from the soil and still has those nutrients to put back into the soil unless they are thrown away.
Every garden writer there is will tell you to put organic matter into your soil and the best palce to get that organic matter is from the leaves and grass clippings you produce. Many, many people expend hugh amounts of time, energy, and money "getting rid" if the leaves that fall from their trees every year (a renewable resource) and then in the spring, to add organic matter to their soil, will buy (spending even more money) peat moss ( a nonrenewable resource) to replace what they threw away the previous fall.
Diseases really are little concern in this "waste" material. Some people, that do not understand how nature works, will tell you that this waste will allow garden pests someplace to winter over, forgetting that this waste will also allow beneficial insects someplace to winter over. There is good, solid research that shows that composting diseased plant tissue will help the bacteria in the Soil Food Web develop immunities to these diseases, much the same as a vaccine will aid your immune system to develop ways to control disease pathogens in your body.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2007 at 7:57AM
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IMHO, mulching leaves in the fall and grass clippings every time you mow is very good for the soil. Do some reading and searching on the internet.

Same for leaving mulch on the soil until it decomposes. Merely replenish when it gets "too thin".

Or maybe, as some people do, move the mulch away from plants before placing some fertilizer around them. Then spread the mulch back over the fertilizer. I do that sometimes but I only use organic fertilizers. I don't know how this would work with chemical fertilizers. Probably ok.

I steal leaf bags every fall and put thick layers on the lawn/garden. Those on the lawn are always mulched in with my lawn mower.

Thick, healthy lawn is the result and the garden soil is healthy and always grows good stuff. Such an easy thing to do IMHO.

Leaves are probably the best soil amendment for me, here in Michigan, IMHO. They are so readily available every fall. Why anyone would remove them without taking the time to mulch them back into the soil is beyond me.

Oh well, when they bag them up, it's my gain!!

    Bookmark   June 18, 2007 at 11:16AM
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Raking up grass clippings is a horrible idea!

First you want the nutrients returned to your lawn asap. Second if your using a sharp mulching blade and you mow as often as you should you won't have any dry clippings on top to look unsightly. Also if you're cutting off so much of the grass blade that it sits on top and desiccates you're going to have larger problems than unsightly dry clippings.

Raking up grass clippings is a horrible idea!

    Bookmark   June 22, 2007 at 12:47PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

Some people are under the mistaken impression that grass that you cut and leave becomes thatch. That's just plain untrue. Once your lawn gets up and running on these materials- they will be quickly digested after a couple rains.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2007 at 2:04PM
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Can new plants make it up through the mulch in the spring? Or do I need to have very thin mulch in spring?

    Bookmark   June 22, 2007 at 2:21PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

Perrenials/bulbs will make it through a couple/few inches of mulch in the spring. Some plants will make it through a half foot of mulched leaves etc.

You don't need to rake up mulch in the spring- that's silliness. Pulling mulch back does get the soil to warm up faster- but it's not necessary unless you are really pushing the season and planting too early like me.

It decomposes in place over the growing months- just add a skim more to dress it up if you think it looks ratty next spring. I like mulching with shredded leaves, and then just a little bark mulch when I'm ambitious. (I admit to liking the look of bark mulch).

    Bookmark   June 22, 2007 at 2:38PM
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flowerbrackob(z4 WI)

How deep is deep? I want to take a preformed pond liner out to make a garden in the hole. Can't work with bags of top soil; way too heavy for me to handle. No neighbors
to help either. Here's what I've been thinking:
I have quite a few small stones/rocks and could use them to help fill the hole after the liner is removed, it'll be 'bout 3' deep. (well not that many rocks.) I have bags of leafs saved and wonder if I could fill in that hole with them in addition to the stones?
Now then: if this is possible/workable, without having a rotten mess and smell from the leafs. (so thick/deep they may not decompose at all) To begin the process, should the rocks go in at the bottom and then the leafs on top? Perhaps the leafs at the bottom and the rocks on top of them. OR, layer the two to avoid rot that will take place if all the leafs are piled thickly all on top of each other 3' deep? One or the other could make drainage ok. I have no source for soil/dirt except to buy it and a 3' hole is a lot of bags of top soil; a truck load is way too too much and companies won't do such small amounts.
Help Please!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 2:29PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

flowerbrackob - if your ultimate goal is to make a garden in this hole then I don't see how you can do it with only rocks and leaves. Or do I misunderstand your question?

Also do you want to bring the hole up to ground level before making it a garden or garden down in the hole?

Either way you are going to need some dirt. Even lasagna beds require some dirt. But turning the hole into a lasagna garden bed may be your best approach so if I were you I'd research building a lasagna garden - there are 100's of posts here on how to do it.

But you will still need other materials. Leaves alone won't give you anything to grow in. Leaves will eventually decompose and turn into leaf mold - a great soil amendment but not a growing medium.

Fill the hole part way up with the rocks if you want. I wouldn't but at least you won't need as much other stuff. Then begin to build the layers of a lasagna bed on top of them using, leaves, manures, compost, grass clippings, etc.


PS: By attaching this to another thread the replies will be sent to the original poster rather than you. Consider starting your own post for best results. Good luck. ;)

    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 6:46PM
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buffburd(z5 NY)

just me,

Leave the mulch in place year round, it keeps the soil in good health and tilth (without the tilling). Add more mulch to the top in late spring or early summer once its warmed up enough to walk barefoot.
I don't mow at home, so I can't comment on grass clippings, but I do get some from the neighbors when I'm gathering up their bags of leaves for my leaf mulch piles as a few bag their grass clippings.
Lasagna gardening and no till has worked very well for me, I believe I have exceptional soil (I'm on my third year here) and I do very little watering in the heat of the summer and everything grows well. My roses particularly like being smothered in a thick layer of leaf mold keeping them cozy for the winter and moist in the summer.
I have hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips coming up through the mulch now (very little chance of weeds here as I left the matted layer of leaves from last fall in place). The daylilies are also poking through in spots.


Here's what I would do. Depending on the size of your pond area, dig out an area to make it 4 feet wide and X feet long such that the depth is 1-2 feet (instead of three, and the same depth in the entire area). This defines your planting bed. Now cover the area with newspapers and wet down to keep them in place, this will keep weeds from your digging at bay. At this point you've got a hole in the ground about 4 feet wide and 1-2 feet deep and at least 4 feet long. Fill the bed up as high above ground level as you can gather materials for, at least 6-12 inches higher than ground level (it will settle a lot). Using layers of compost, coffee grounds, leaves, leaf mold, uncomposted materials, logs (bottom layer to use up space), sticks, ashes. The layer of logs is especially helpful for you because they'll hold their form for longer (keeping your plants from sinking too much) and in general because they'll hold a lot of water and give nutrients to your plants for a long time as fungi break them down. Save some finer materials, like the compost, leaf mold, and coffee grounds to make a smoother surface layer. You can also add a layer of soil to the surface (preferably under a layer of fine mulch) to hold seeds, or just put plants directly into the mix. The first year you'll need to water regularly and a herculean amount. But in following years you will be amazed at the productivity and water retention of this area.


    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 6:47PM
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I am in a quandry every year as to what to do with my leaves. Typically I rake em, tarp em, and dump em in the woods. I've never tried to mulch them up as I easily get 1 foot of coverage in oak leaves. I'm having trouble understanding how this slowly decomposing leaf would benefit my lawn even if I chopped them into tiny pieces. Then I'd have maybe a few inches of cover. How could it decomp fast enough before the lawn was smothered? It doesn't seem worth the risk to me. I'd LOVE to mulch, trust me...does it seem feasible to do so with the copious amounts of leaves I have?

    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 8:52PM
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I'm the person who originally posted this message in June of 2007.

Last fall my neighbor brought me some chopped leaves. I didn't have a composter and I ended up forgeting about them and they stayed on the ground in a thin layer all winter.

This spring I stumbled on them and they had already decomposed quite a bit so I added them to my flower beds. They look like they'll make a great soil additive.

I now have a compost bin and I can't wait to try a big pile of leaves in a real bin since the ones I left on the ground last winter turned out so well. A bin can only help make an even better (and bigger) pile of leaf mold.

I researched a lot of bins and ended up getting a very simple bin that I found online. I love the fact that it is almost invisible in my landscape. I really like it. I've included a link in case anyone is looking for a composter.

Here is a link that might be useful: PilePro Compost Bins

    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 9:23PM
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The reading of mulch mowing of leaves and grass and utility of organic fertilizers and mulch always brings the concept of the material balances to mind.

Input-Output=Accumulation (+generation-depletion if we want to be precise)

Inputs: chemical fertilizers, herbacide/fungacide/pestacide chemicals, organic fertilizers,mulch, water, sun, chemicals, etc.

Outputs: Removal of grass clippings and leaves, volatile gas respiration, evaporation, etc.

Accumulation: ammonium/nitrate salts and poisons, the microherd, water, humus, etc.

Based on this balance you would want to maximize your inputs (i.e organic fertilizers not chemicals) and reduce your outputs (removal of grass clippings and leaves). If you add organic material and remove nothing you will accumulate organic material. If you add chemicals and remove organic material you will accululate chemicals.

Don't smother the turf and feed the soil.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2008 at 11:15PM
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