The great deciduous forests of the east are some of the most dense and colorful on our planet. A combination of deep soils, abundant rainfall, and favorable climate all combine to make this part of the country the most beautiful region for deciduous trees; those that leaf out in the spring and then shed them all before the onset of colder weather in the winter. The transformation in the landscape is truly amazing as these dense trees start to turn color in the fall and then drop all of their leaves as they prepare to survive the months of colder weather and snow. Fall leaf removal can be a major task for many communities due to the amount and size of the trees in the landscape. Below are recommendations on how to best remove leaves safely and efficiently.
Tree Species and Leaf Drop: Depending upon the species of trees in your community, leaf drop can vary greatly; from as early as late October to well into December. Some of the earliest trees are natives, such as red maples and ash, followed by sugar maples, hickory and then finally the oaks. Weather can also make a difference in when leaves drop, with a warm and wet fall delaying leaf drop while a fall that is drier and has cooler temps will allow the trees to drop their leaves faster. The age of the tree can also be a factor, with younger trees that are growing more vigorously hanging on to their leaves longer than older ones that put on less growth and tend to drop earlier.
Leaf Drop and Turfgrass: Some leaves are very dense and can damage lawns if allowed to fall and are not cleaned up in a timely fashion. While it may be tempting to wait until all, or most of the leaves have fallen before you do a cleanup, this can stress the lawn that is trying to put out growth. While a lot of homeowners will spend the weekend raking up these leaves and placing them in bags and setting by the curb to be picked up and recycled, a vast majority of these leaves can be recycled right into the turf with your mowers. Even trees that drop a lot of leaves, such as a sugar maple, can be chopped up with a recycling mower and allowed to filter through the grass and go back into the soil. Studies have shown this to be beneficial to both the grass and trees since the nutrients and organic matter is put back from where it came. If done correctly when the leaves are dry, mulching should leave your lawn looking as neat as if they were all raked up and bagged. This mimics what is happening in the forests as the leaves are allowed to decompose under the trees year-after-year and allowing the valuable nutrients to be reused each year.
Safety Considerations: Fallen leaves, especially on hard surfaces such as sidewalks and parking lots, can become a safety hazard in the fall. Leaves can become slippery when they are wet, such as after rain, and can lead to slip-and-falls when allowed to accumulate. Larger leaves, such as those from maples and planetrees, tend to cause more issues than those with smaller leaves in regards to slipperiness and potential to cause a fall.
Leaf Removal Recommendations: When considering the timing for your fall leaf removal you need to take into consideration the overall effect the leaves will have in your community. Are the leaves covering the lawn and reducing the important fall growth that occurs with the turf? Are leaves piling up in areas that might cause a hazard for pedestrians who walk on them? Is the community planted with tree varieties that shed their leaves early or late? While it might be tempting to wait until all the leaves have fallen so you can make one cleanup late in the fall, often it is easier to do several smaller cleanups as the leaves drop to reduce some of these potential problems. Also, communities will have a spring cleanup, usually in late winter that will clean up any of the leaves that may drop late, such as some of the oaks, and leaves blown in from other areas.
While our trees create a spectacular display in the fall that is unrivaled anywhere in the world, be sure to approach your community’s leaf removal process with a full understanding of all contributing factors.
By Steve Sullivan
Steve is the director of technical services in the Mid-Atlantic region for Brightview, having worked in the horticultural field for over 36 years. He graduated with honors from Southern Illinois University with a B.S degree in plant and soil science and is a certified arborist with the National Arborist Association. His responsibilities include all regulatory issues, horticultural and pest management training, seasonal color program, plant selection, and other field related training.