One of the most unappreciated, free natural resources in yards across the United States is often the bane of homeowners in the Lowcountry in late fall and winter: leaves.
We rake them. We blow them. We carefully put them in special paper bags.
Then we place them on the curb for city or county crews to haul to a landfill for mulching or composting.
Or we pay someone else to do all that work.
The legacy of leaves
In nature, there is no waste. Today’s leaves should be part of tomorrow’s healthy, organic soil.
The Habitat Network, a citizens science project spearheaded by Cornell School of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy, notes that “leaf litter” left to decompose “replenishes soil by releasing carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other inorganic compounds.”
Leaf litter also helps the soil retain moisture and regulate temperature, which is particularly important during below freezing weather and cold snaps, the network says.
Leaves also provide food and habitat for birds, other small mammals, frogs, butterfly pupae, native bees and beneficial spiders.
Clemson Extension’s “Carolina Yards” initiative strongly encourages the use of leaf mulch, as well as grass clippings, in a homeowner’s management of yards.
“Mulch keeps moisture in the soil and moderates soil temperature. Mulch also reduces erosion and weed … Organic mulches produced by nature make an attractive, natural mulch and are free. Think of it as nature’s great design of providing low-maintenance, free root protection,” according to Carolina Yards.
The program reports that the amount of mulch to apply often depends on the mulch material, but that “a good rule of thumb is to maintain a two- to three-inch depth of organic mulch in your yard.” However, use less mulch on soils that are poorly drained or remain damp to allow for drying.
Horticulturalist Brienne Gluvna Arthur, author of the upcoming book “The Foodscape Revolution: Finding a Better Way to Make Space for Food and Beauty in Your Garden,” calls leaf mulch “the best thing for building soil.”
“Leaf mulch is called ‘black gold’ by gardeners and it is a natural resource that everyone has access to. “We mow leaves, bag them and use them to build healthy soil in my foodscape,” says Arthur.
Homeowners can’t go totally carefree when it comes to leaves. Management of leaves in urban and suburban settings, where the hardscapes of parking lots, streets, sidewalks, driveways and storm drains exist, is still necessary.
Kim Counts Morganello, a local water resources extension agent for Clemson Extension, says that homeowners and businesses still need to make sure that leaves are not allowed to blow into streets or sidewalks.
Leaves left on sidewalks and streets can present slipping hazard to pedestrians and end up clogging storm drains and ditches. An overload of leaves in waterways can present water quality issues.
Morganello also notes that those who do dispose of leaves for local governments to pick up should do so properly and keep plastic bags and other nonorganic materials out of the paper collection bags.
Bucking the bag
Some, though, tap into the value of leaves.
Many use an array of approaches to keep them on site, including finely mulching them in to grass lawns and using leaf mulch for planting beds or as a carbon source for backyard compost piles as well as raking or blowing them into tree beds.
“I never rake mine. I just run over them once with the lawn mower,” says Nancy Vinson, of Charleston, noting that fine leaf mulch helps keep weed seeds from sprouting and serves as nutrients for grass.
Vinson points to information from Michigan State turfgrass researchers that showed that lawns that had several years of mulched leaves on them required less fertilizer in the spring to “green up” and that decomposing leaves in bare spots blocked nearly all crabgrass and dandelions after three years of mulching.
Joshua Giordano-Silliman, who lives in West Ashley, rakes leaves back into beds to decompose naturally.
Isle of Palms resident Kay Greiman says she also mulches them with a mower, using the organic material along with mushroom compost on perennial beds and top dressing the leaf mulch with pine straw in others. She also uses some for her home composting barrel.
“I don’t have grass because it requires too much watering,” says Greiman, adding however that thick layers of unmulched leaves don’t break down as efficiently.
Carolyn Kennemer Scott of Summerville has lived on family land for 30 years and found that yearly raking had caused erosion of the top soil.
“Most of my yard had become pure gray sand. Now I leave a layer of leaves to decompose and use the bulk of them to build up vegetable and flower beds,” says Scott.
The contingent of homeowners with backyard chicken coops, such as Carmen Klapperich of Charleston and Mark Turansky of Mount Pleasant, also note the value of leaves for their chickens and coops.
“I’ve even ‘stolen’ bags of leaves from the street for this,” says Turansky.
Germaine Jenkins, director of Fresh Future Farm in North Charleston, recalls her husband doing the same, collecting bagged leaves from neighbors and using it with bedding for their chicken coop. Now too busy to maintain a “homestead,” Jenkins uses leaves to insulate young banana trees at the urban farm she manages.
For some Lowcountry homeowners, such as Amanda Graham Barton of Charleston, they have so many leaves that they can’t manage the leaves by mowing, mulching and composting them.
“We have so much leaf fall from two 60-plus-inch (in diameter) live oaks and other trees that we leave them in the beds they fall into, have a compost pile and still have to cart some bags out to the street,” says Barton.
Likewise, Paul King of Mount Pleasant says two large oaks drop “lots and lots of leaves on an ongoing basis” that the cover, in combination with shade, that he has to remove them to keep his turf alive.
And then a leafy groundcover is frowned on by some local homeowner’s associations. Stefanie Swackhamer says the Snee Farm homeowners association in Mount Pleasant will fine her if leaves are visible from the road.