“… a mature, healthy tree can have 200,000 leaves. During 60 years of life, such a tree would grow and shed 3,600 pounds of leaves, returning about 70% of their nutrients to the soil.”
Wisconsin County Forests webpage
Think about how many millions of leaves will be gathered here at Winterthur and in the many gardens throughout the Brandywine Valley this autumn. Cleaning up leaves in fall is one of those meditative, seemingly inescapable, chores that come with caring for a garden. Here at Winterthur we still rake and blow millions of leaves, but more and more we are supplementing leaf removal with mulch mowing.
If you hate raking leaves you have a simple alternative – mulch mowing. Mulch mowing is a process that cuts up and macerates the leaves, leaving them in place in your garden to decompose over the winter and following growing season. While not promising a total escape from gathering leaves, it offers gardeners an alternative to dealing with piles of leaves.
Mulch mowing is not terribly complicated. I’ve illustrated the basic steps below with photos and captions.
Set up your mower for mulching; most mowers allow you to run them without a bag and with an insert that closes off the mower deck. This keeps the leaves and grass from being discharged and allows the mower to cut the vegetation into finer pieces.
Wear proper equipment. You should wear safety glasses, hearing protection, and boots when using this equipment. Leaves can conceal rocks, roots, and other obstacles – better to be safe than sorry.
Mow over leaves and any plants ready to be cut back. You don’t need to confine yourself to lawn areas. You can mow over plants, such as hosta, that are going to lose their leaves anyway.
Repeat mowing weekly or as needed. The photographs above were taken 5 minutes apart. You can see how the mower reduced the leaves to finely chopped pieces that will filter down to the surface of the soil. Whole leaves left in the garden tend to mat down and can smother grass, bulbs, and other perennials. The process of mulch mowing chops the leaves into finer pieces, allowing your plants to grow freely as the leaves decompose and return to the soil.