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Creating a Sustainable Landscape: Part 1 – Leaves and Mulch

leaves and mulchThere are several traditional landscaping practices that lack environmental benefits and are creating a lot more work than necessary. Among those are the conventional ideas that all leaves need to be removed from a yard and the garden beds in the fall and then a thick layer of mulch needs to be added to the garden beds in the spring. We have become accustomed to the visual appearance of these practices, however, there is a much simpler way to approach this aspect of landscape maintenance – leave the leaves.

The basic goal of mulch is to retain moisture, moderate temperature, and suppress weeds. It also adds organic matter to the garden beds, although the quality of this organic matter depends on where your mulch is coming from and how it’s made, which is an important question to ask. One of the problems with mulch is that there is a right and wrong way to use it and frequently, it ends up being used the wrong way. If you are getting the same amount of mulch applied to your garden beds year after year, chances are there is too much there.

Excess mulch inhibits the movement of air and moisture in and out of the soil, which has negative impacts on the health of the trees and plantings in your landscape creates an avenue for rodents to cause damage by giving them an easy way to tunnel through and feed on the bases of plants (this most commonly happens in the winter).

Another tree-specific mistake that is commonly made is the application of “volcano mulch.” This is when it is piled high around the base of the tree. This practice can:

  • cause girdling roots
  • cause surface roots
  • lead to disease and insect problems

Consequently, it is extremely important to monitor the depth of the mulch to ensure that it’s not actually hurting your landscape.

One solution to this common issue of over-mulching is to utilize the leaves that fall onto your property each year. Nature has a way of regenerating and promoting healthy growth. Leaves are there for us to use. They are full of minerals that their trees soaked up from the soil and promote soil health. Earthworms and microorganisms are waiting to break down leaf mulch and turn it into organic matter. As the leaves are broken down, they:

  • Improve soil structure
  • Add organic material to the soil food web
  • Protect against compaction and erosion
  • Retain moisture

Additionally, leaves provide habitat for insects and critters. These critters are essential to your yard’s ecosystem as they provide pollination for plants and food for birds.

Lastly, leaves on the lawn should be mowed using a mulching deck so that they may be returned to the soil where they provide the same benefits discussed above. If your yard is heavily treed and it is impossible to incorporate all of them into the lawn, they can be raked to the nearest garden bed.

Sustainable landscaping practices, such as leaving the leaves on your property and reducing or eliminating the need for additional mulch, are both environmentally beneficial and responsible. Not only are you creating healthier conditions for your landscape by utilizing the readily available pre-existing organic matter, but you are also reducing the need for carbon-emitting equipment such as backpack blowers.

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