Environment
12:18 pm
Fri October 28, 2011

Want To Improve Your Lawn? Don't Bag Those Leaves

Every year, about 8 million tons of fallen leaves end up in landfills.

That's according to Melissa Hopkins of the National Audubon Society, who offers alternatives to raking up leaves and throwing them away.

"A lot of people think that when leaves fall, you need to really quickly scoop them up and get rid of them," she tells NPR's Melissa Block as they take a look Block's backyard in Washington, D.C., covered in a blanket of leaves. "We think about leaves as vitamins. They are free vitamins that naturally occur in your yard."

Hopkins says a way to take advantage of these vitamins is to create natural mulch. She says you can use a mower to shred some of the leaves and spread them across the grass, and then "come spring, you're going to have a healthy lawn," she says.

"One thing you want to keep in mind is that you don't want a really thick layer of leaves anywhere," Hopkins says. "Because sunlight can't get to what's beneath it, and moisture will kill what's underneath."

So, a very thin layer of leaves will do.

"Think about it in moderation," she says. "You want to be able to see the grass with an occasional leaf or leaf cutting around."

The remaining leaves can nourish the trees and shrubs. Rake them up and put them around trees and shrubs in 3- to 6-inch deep piles.

"Leaves in the forest provide about 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients that trees receive," Hopkins says. "No one is going into the forest to clean the leaves. On top of that, leaves protect the levels of moisture that reach the trees and also regulate the soil temperature. So they're like gold for trees."

After you create the tree and shrub piles, Hopkins suggests putting the remaining leaves in compost bins and stirring them up to circulate everything that's decomposing. For those without compost bins or piles, Hopkins says you can contact the local government to find out if it will compost the leaves for you.

If you put the leaves in a bag, she says, they'll go into a landfill.

For people who struggle with having leaves spread across their lawn, Hopkins offers a new way to look at your lawn.

"Instead of this perfectly manicured, untouchable space, think of it as this living, breathing habitat," she says. "And when you start thinking about it that way, you're going to start seeing that the more that you do stuff like this, the more birds are going to be attracted to your yard, diversity of birds, insects, butterflies. And with this leaf cover, come spring, it's going to go into the ground. So you're going to have your nice green lawn again."

So what's the downside to making the most of the fallen leaves? Not having enough for you — or your kids — to jump into. So jump first, mulch later.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block, and I've moved out of the studio for a little bit. I'm actually out standing in my backyard, which is covered with a blanket of leaves. It is raking season, but Melissa Hopkins from the National Audubon Society is here to help us figure out some alternatives to raking leaves and throwing them away. So, Melissa, I'm looking around my lawn. I see a mess. What do you think?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MELISSA HOPKINS: Well, you know, a lot of people think that when leaves fall, you need to really quickly scoop them up and get rid of them. But we think about leaves a little bit differently at Audubon. We think about leaves as vitamins, and they're free vitamins that naturally occur in your yard. So today, what we're going to do is we're going to use the leaves, and we're going to create natural mulch.

BLOCK: OK. And what's our first step here? What do you want me to do?

HOPKINS: We're going to use your push mower, and we're going to actually mulch up some of the leaves. If you shred them up and put them over your yard, they're going to create this nice blanket that's going to go into the yard over the winter. And then come spring, you're going to have a healthier lawn.

BLOCK: All right, I'm going to put myself to work here.

HOPKINS: Yeah.

BLOCK: Let me get the gloves on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOWER)

HOPKINS: You see them getting chopped up a little bit. This is perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOWER)

HOPKINS: One thing you want to keep in mind is that you don't want a really thick layer of leaves anywhere.

BLOCK: How thin a layer are we chopping?

HOPKINS: Well, on your lawn, I mean, really very, very thin. You want to be able to see the grass with an occasional leaf or leaf cutting around.

BLOCK: OK.

HOPKINS: So the next step that we're going to do is we're going to rake some of them up because you have a pretty decent coating of leaves on your lawn. You don't necessarily want all of this here. We can make use of them in other parts of your yard. So time to rake.

BLOCK: Time to rake.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAKING)

BLOCK: OK. We got a pretty good sized pile here now.

HOPKINS: Yup. And we'll just kind of place them under some of your trees and bushes in piles. And I'm going to say let's leave the pile around the trees and bushes about 3 to 6 inches deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAKING)

BLOCK: I got a big handful.

HOPKINS: Yup. You have this really good tree back here. Let's get that tree.

BLOCK: Oh, the birch tree. How about this?

HOPKINS: Leaves in the forest provide about 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients that trees receive, and no one's going into the forests to clean up leaves.

BLOCK: Yeah.

HOPKINS: On top of that, leaves really protect the levels of moisture that reach the trees and also regulate the soil temperature. So they're like gold for trees.

BLOCK: Better to put these back on the river birch over here?

HOPKINS: Yeah. Yeah, sure. You also have two compost bins here...

BLOCK: I do.

HOPKINS: ...which is great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOPKINS: So the remaining leaves, we'll just put into the compost.

BLOCK: OK, great.

Careful, there could be some flies coming out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: OK. So the leaves just went in on top of the eggshells and teabags.

HOPKINS: Mm-hmm. Yup.

BLOCK: So we shredded the leaves. We've mulched in the garden. We've put some in the compost. We do have now a lawn that a lot of people would look at and say that looks awful because...

HOPKINS: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...there are leaves all over it. It's messy.

HOPKINS: And I understand that, and I think part of it is kind of thinking about your lawn a little bit differently. Instead of this sort of perfectly manicured, untouchable space, think of it as this living, breathing habitat. And when you start thinking about it that way, you're going to start seeing that the more that you do stuff like this, the more birds are going to be attracted to your yard, diversity of birds, insects, butterflies, things like that. And also, the other point is with this leaf cover, if you leave it nice and thin and you make sure it's shredded up, come spring, it's not going to be there. It's going to go into the ground. So you're going to have your nice green lawn again.

BLOCK: So, Melissa, the only downside of what we've done with the leaves here today is that I don't have enough now for a leaf pile for my dog...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: ...(unintelligible) jump in. We'll have to find some more.

HOPKINS: I know. That's true. That's one of the best parts of leaves is jumping in them.

BLOCK: Jump in them first, mulch later.

HOPKINS: Exactly.

BLOCK: Melissa Hopkins, thanks so much for coming by and helping me with my leaves today.

HOPKINS: Oh, it's great to be here.

BLOCK: Melissa Hopkins with the National Audubon Society here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.