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Fall & Spring Clean Up Considerations

Fall and spring clean-ups involve some decision-making and preferences vary, so we have gathered some thoughts on best practices below.

When leaves are in garden beds and bushes, they act as a habitat for overwintering insects, amphibians, and reptiles while protecting the soil and roots below. We recommend leaving whole leaves piled in gardens and beds all winter when tolerable. 

Ideally, a maximal amount of whole leaves are retained in beds with some raked or lightly blown into them from the lawn too. There’s a lot of life settling in for the winter in the leaves on the lawn and the beds. For low impact leave all the leaves in the beds (within reason, 4 inches or less (although leaves reduce bulk (16 to 1 over time or when shredded), and rake some off the lawn into the beds first, before mulch mowing the lawn. Mel LeMay of the Aspetuck Land Trust Green Corridor initiative reminded me that doing so saves more lives. Raking is less destructive than blowing, but with an electric on low setting, that is low impact also. We also do zero-emission lawn sweeping which is super efficient and super effective for less blower use! For more info on gas leaf blowers detriments, here is a great NYT article.

Another approach if the beds seem maxed out with excess whole leaves, is to rake or blow excess and loose ones off beds, while leaving a layer of them in place. Sometimes taking away the excess is a good choice, but often mulch mowing them and scattering on the lawn or blowing back onto the beds is a better option, as they do protect beds and feed soil there and on the lawn. 

We defer to client preferences regarding methods for their own aesthetics, but try to advocate the least harmful/most good approach and are always open to feedback. Regarding plants, we have the same philosophy that leaving dead stalks and heads over the winter and into spring can provide food for birds and a habitat for creatures like tunneling bees. 

The life cycle of insects and hibernation typically ends in beds based on temperature. Conscientious people can time their spring clean-ups, which may become heavier with an adjustment in practices, by checking temperatures. It is usually late April to mid-May. We certainly don’t want to give critters a cozy winter and then kill them all in the Spring by starting early! Doug Tallamy suggests that there is always life in those leaves in the beds, so never may a good time be to clear them out. They just turn into soil ultimately anyway. Interesting that even mid to late May clearing of beds is still somewhat damaging to the residents : ).

Birds can eat some of the deadhead materials and tunneling bees can use the stalks left over through winter, so leaving dead plants in the beds in Fall is also good for the local wildlife. 

For lawn clean up in Spring, we advocate a stick pickup and light blow off to clear any leaves that may make dead spots in grass, plus a little seed patching with grass seed and straw (and maybe a little compost to aid germination, though that is a bit tough to tote around). We don’t power rake the way many companies do because it scares up weed seeds for the summer weeds. That kind of harsher activity should be reserved for fall. And, again, waiting until late May to clear out excess leaves from beds if you must, and perhaps mulch mow them further, to allow the most of the critters to emerge unscathed beforehand!

Scroll over image to see Before and After:
Early season mulch mowing: Just a single pass with a mulching mower grinds most of these leaves back into the turf (with drier leaves, perhaps a slightly lower setting, and sometimes a second pass, they “disappear” and fertilize!
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Decomposing leaves nourish the soil and there is a fair amount of complex science around leaf compost, mold and mulch that we won’t delve into much here. They do give off nitrogen and phosphorus and bring soil to life. There are differences between leaves of different trees regarding PH etc. Mulch mowing leaves after they fall and keeping them on the lawn and in beds is great for the soil in general, as they give off most of what they have to offer fairly quickly. One argument against piling them on street-side for eventual pickup is that they start to release phosphorus within two weeks and a lot of that goes to the drains and detracts from water quality.

Other benefits of mulch mowing include building of soil organic matter, better absorption and aeration, and a 15 to 1 bulk reduction!

People often try to grow grass under trees with varying levels of success. Best practices are actually to allow the trees natural mulch (leaves and needles) to remain below the tree, making a protective bed for the roots and soil, a natural mulch, retaining moisture and preventing erosion. Some suggest to make the entire drip line (outer reaches of the branches) the bed outline to leave leaves and needles in place. Next best options for aesthetics include mulch mowing the leaves for under-tree mulch, or even adding some local mulch. 

Regarding Fall and Spring Clean up, here are a few good links that discuss timing of clean up and what to do with dead heads, plants, pruning, and leaf litter.

Dan Woog, Leave Leaves, 06880 blog. He mentions Aspetuck, a partner and customer of ours in his piece and links to their information which is also useful and part of our charter to support.  Leave Leaves Alone! | 06880  

Mel LeMay, MowGreen Customer and Partner: Aspetuck Land Trust: Leave the Leaves!


And here is a video of early season mulch mowing where conditions aren’t perfect, but you can see the profound results.

I think leaves management becomes 20 to 40% less costly by mulch mowing, compared to blowing and hauling. I haven’t analyzed it exhaustively, but as we transitioned to doing it more and more in recent seasons, I have seen the fall fees at a typical account trending downward. It depends on how people view their beds, and whether we can leave whole leaves in beds or mulch mow and distribute back into beds as well as across the lawns. 

Usually our clean up estimates are on a time and materials basis and the actual time required and related billing may be more or less than the estimates. We hope to always discuss preferences for leaves processing when possible. We have custom fields in our CRM to track these and other details for each customer.

Preferences are so variable, that we are careful with committing to clean up price ceilings because getting every leaf off a property can be so time consuming. Often we limit our upside, but keep risk of loss lower, with a time and materials approach to the work rather than fixed fees. It’s good to get the job done once and learn preferences before committing to fixed fees. 

A problem with many gas leaf blower using service providers is that they think a property should be stripped end to end, and by using the most powerful blowers, they maximize their profits on fixed fee cleanups. Customers need to dictate specifications that discourage these methods which are so destructive! Backpack gas leaf blowers are clumsy besides highly polluting and noisy, and the hand held versions are feeble. Electric hand helds are more powerful than gas powered counterparts, more agile and precise, and easier to be gentle with, to avoid disturbing existing mulch or cultivated items like moss. We like electric hand held units most often.

Fall clean up market rates often range from $300 to $900 depending on the size of the property. It’s probably safe to assume a 20-40+% advantage to mulch mowing and having some beds retaining whole leaves or getting mulched leaves blown back on top. Although some companies charge extra for mulch mowing, we do not. We also believe in more frequent mulch mowing to speed up the decomposition of the leaves spread over a longer period of time, increasing the amount of mulch mowing possible.

If leaves are to be removed, there is a small fee for hauling and dumping to compost. Keeping an area on site for leaves is a nice idea to make your own leaf compost or just to be as efficient as possible.

Another area to consider in fall is to reduce invasive non-native weeds, as weakening them now is a great way to assure a harsh winter and a diminished return. We work with an eye for fostering natives and reducing invasives. Our staff is trained to know the difference and identify what’s there and treat it according to best practices. 

As always, we look forward to hearing from you and helping to meet your organic land care objectives so you and local wildlife may flourish. It’s all about the Birds and the Bees and the Leaves we oughtta leave!


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