Trying to maintain a beautiful lawn is no easy feat. Each season presents its own unique set of challenges. One of the challenges that every homeowner faces is that of yard debris. Autumn in North Carolina bring beautiful vibrant changing leaves, transforming mundane yards and tree-lines into works of art. Shortly after, however, those leaves begin plummeting to the ground and blanketing lawns. Fast forward to the growing seasons of spring and summer, when mowing is at its height. It is during this time of year that we face the challenge of grass clippings left behind after mowing, which can clump up and prove unsightly, and even unhealthy, if not cut and removed properly.
Let’s start with Autumn and those freshly dropped leaves. Why do the leaves need to be removed to begin with? Why can’t they remain there for the winter season? The leaves need to be removed promptly because this layer covering the grass blocks both sunlight and air from reaching the turf, two very important elements needed for the grass to survive. Therefore, if left, the leaves can smother the grass and cause turf diseases.
Since we’ve confirmed the importance of leaf removal, let’s now talk about the effort that must be exerted to deal with these fallen leaves. For some, leaf removal is a yearly yard chore that they enjoy, but for many others it’s a job they would rather avoid. This job involves raking the leaves and bagging them for the city to grab or even pushing them to a natural area (like the woods behind your house). These are fine options, but one option remains that many homeowners do not think about - mulching them into the lawn.
Looking at the amount of leaves covering your lawn, you may think there are far too many, but mulching them properly can cut them down tremendously! Not only will this save you the time and work of removing the leaves, but for the same or possibly less effort, it will provide you with a natural soil amendment for your lawn. The microbes and worms which live in soil will break down organic materials such as leaves and grass clippings. As the leaves break down, they will provide the grass roots with nutrients and an increase in nitrogen, acting as a natural fertilizer. Adding a fertilizer on top of this will aid in providing nutrients to the microbes and you’re on your way to setting your lawn up for success! An additional advantage of mulching leaves is that it covers the soil between the grass where weed seeds like to grow, thus it also aids in weed control.
When deciding which leaf removal approach to take, another consideration is that leaves taken to landfills are not only being wasted but are also taking up incredibly valuable space. An article by North Carolina State University addresses this very issue as scientists at the National Wildlife Federation stress the importance of making use of the leaves:
“Leaves taking up space in the landfill is a waste of valuable and increasingly limited space. The problem isn’t just an inefficient use of space, however: according to the Federation, solid-waste landfills are the largest US source of man-made methane, one of the most problematic greenhouse gases. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris takes up 13% of the solid waste of the entire country, about 33 million tons per year. What if there was another way to manage fall leaves so they didn’t take up landfill space, creating methane?”
Now for the basics of mulching the leaves into your soil. A mulching mower is the best option as it is designed with a high deck and a mulching blade that chops leaves into small fine pieces. It does this by circulating the leaves in deck several times before dropping them, ensuring that each leaf is being shredded by the blade multiple times on a single pass.
Should you not have access to a mulching mower, don’t worry, a regular mower will work as well. Without a mulching mower, you may just need to take a couple of passes over the turf in order to ensure that you are cutting at a higher setting. A general rule of thumb is to cut leaf debris down to about the size of a dime. You may be concerned with the look of the cut-up leaves, but if mulched properly, the leaf mulch will filter down into the soil. If after a few passes you can’t see your grass and it is heavily covered with the leaf remains, you can put the bagger on your mower and make one pass over the lawn. If you have a blower, gently blow out the yard so that it is not quite so covered. You can even blow the mulched leaves into a bed as it will act as a bed mulch providing nutrients to the surrounding plants.
Another way to avoid such an accumulation of leaves is to mow every week during the height of the fall season. By doing this, there is not enough time between each mowing for the leaves to build up to an unmanageable amount.
Now that we have a good understanding of mulching leaves in the fall, let’s move from the fall season into the spring and summer. It is during this time of year in which we have to face the challenge of grass clippings left behind after mowing. A frequent misconception is that grass clippings need to be removed after mowing. However, like leaves, mulching the clippings back into the lawn is far too beneficial for the turf to be ignored. As the grass clippings decompose, the lawn soaks up the nutrients, similarly to what happens when mulching leaves into the turf.
A concern that many homeowners have is that the clippings will cause thatch. Thatch is a layer of undecomposed or partially decomposed grass roots, stems, and lower shoots that accumulate between the soil and actively growing turf. The build-up of thatch starts when the turf produces organic debris faster than the microbes in your soil can break it down. While it is a commonly expressed concern, research at MU and other universities have determined that grass clippings do not contribute to thatch buildup on any cool- or warm-season grasses. This is because grass clippings contain 80 to 85 percent water and decompose much more quickly than other grass plant parts.
This concern was born out of a desire to protect lawns; however, it ironically causes more harm than good. This misconception has led to many individuals disposing of grass clippings rather than reaping its benefits as a natural fertilizer. As it turns out, having a layer of thatch is not a bad thing! In fact, it can aid in the resiliency and healthiness of the turf. It is not until thatch buildup exceeds a half-inch that it can cause an issue.
As mentioned earlier, excessive thatch build-up is due to the soil having too little microbial activity. There are a number of factors which can contribute to this, such as improper watering (using too much water or watering too frequently to shallow depths), and not mowing the lawn often enough (which typically leads to cutting off more than 1/3 of the grass blade and a lack of aeration). If the above mistakes are avoided, and if the homeowner utilizes both natural fertilization techniques (leaf/grass-clipping debris) and fertilizer products, over time, microbial activity will achieve healthy levels.
A turf care program can be beneficial for achieving levels of healthy microbial activity by ensuring that the lawn is mowed regularly and that both organic and non-organic fertilization techniques are properly executed. By viewing your soil as a living ecosystem and continuing to build up your soil’s microbial health, you will find your grass will be much more resilient to environmental stresses such as heat stress, turf diseases, and foot traffic.
Yard debris poses much less of a threat and can be viewed as much less of a nuisance when viewed as free organic fertilizer. Two of the hottest buzzwords in retail are sitting right outside your front door: free and organic! Also, dealing with yard debris is likely to become less of a chore when knowing that the work completed will reap aesthetically pleasing benefits during the following season.
As demonstrated above, while yard debris removal and mulching debris into the soil require similar amounts of time and effort, the two approaches yield very different results! Most homeowners are reactive when it comes to lawn maintenance, waiting to act until there is a visible problem with their turf. When a problem reaches this level, they will have to build up the health of the soil which takes time. As with most things in life, being proactive instead of reactive is less work in the long run and lawn care is no different. By understanding the properties of what most people consider to be ‘waste’, you can begin taking a strategic approach in caring for your lawn.