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To clean or not to clean up the leaves in the garden.

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

October has almost passed and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. But what should we do with leaves covering the yard?

autumn leaves, fall garden

It's a personal choice how people tend their garden. Some people view it as an extension of the house and want it equally clean as the living room. That might not be a totally realistic goal, but if people have the time and energy to mop the patio and sieve the soil in the flowerbeds and that brings them joy, there is nothing wrong with that.

Since I started gardening, I've viewed my yard more as a connection with nature and tried to the best of my ability to not just grow plants, but to also nurture an ecosystem. I've designed the garden with natural lines and tried to plant so that there are as few bare spots of soil visible as possible. In nature bare soil is usually a sign of erosion, unless you're in a desert. Lush plant habitats have a continuous vegetative ground cover and that is the look I'm going for. There are few things more beautiful than forest plants growing in the leave covered forest floor.

Organic plant matter is a very important component of healthy, living soil. It's therefore an unnecessary task to clear all the leaves out of the flower and tree beds, because by allowing them to decompose in place they provide nutrients to the plants in the garden and the organisms living on and below the surface. If you feel the yard isn't tidy enough with leave covered flower beds, it's a better option to put them in a compost pile and then mulch the beds with the compost, instead of removing this important component from the garden. Inorganic fertilizer can replace the lost nutrients, but it doesn't improve the composition of the soil nor does it support the organisms living in the soil. The cover of leaves also shelters the plants in the garden during the winter months and the withered flower stalks of perennials help to keep the leaves in place.

Autumn leaves collected from a lawn using a lawnmower.
Using a lawnmower to collect the leaves from the lawn is considerably easier than raking them up.

Lawns do not benefit from a cover of leaves during the winter, because the leaves are compacted as they get wet and can damage the grass. It's therefore best to clear most of the leaves from the lawn, they can be raked into the closest flower bed. If the weather allows, a lawnmower fitted with a collection box can make this task a breeze and the cut grass and leaves can either be dumped into the flower beds or the compost bin. It is important though to have the lawn mower in it's highest position so the grass is not cut too close before winter. The same goes for paved areas and patios. The leaves are of no use in those areas and a thick cover of leaves on timber decks can be damaging, so the leaves there should be collected and either spread in the flower beds or put in the compost bin.

Fall garden.
The lawn cleared of leaves and the leaves spread around the rhododendrons in the tree bed along the garden wall.

There is one important exception. Leaves of plants that are infected by fungal or viral diseases should be cleaned up and thrown away or burned. If they are left in the beds or put in the compost bin they can infect other plants. If the leaves are burned, the ash can be dumped in the compost pile as it contains phosphorus and other nutrients which is an important nutrient for all plants.

Increased sustainability is good for the environment and in gardening that means transporting as little as possible to and from the garden and composting as much as possible of the garden waste that is produced. Healthy, living soil produces healthy, vigorous plants and binds more carbon than lifeless soil that is fed with inorganic fertilizers.

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