Q. My husband and I have created a really nice space in our backyard. Just before the pandemic shutdown, we’d mapped out and started work on it. We planted a lilac, a small redbud tree and lots of perennial plants along the border, leaving a 12-by-20 foot space for a lawn area. All last year, while working the border, we’d work the lawn space too, adding manure, peat moss and topsoil every now and then, and kept any weeds that started to grow pulled.
Everything took really well, so this spring we went ahead and planted the lawn area with fescue sod. The lawn settled in marvelously, so we’re really pleased with our work. Now, the lilac, redbud and the neighbor’s desert willow are dropping their leaves and they are collecting on the lawn.
My husband thinks we can leave them, since “they’ll feed the lawn,” but I have a faint recollection that you suggest against leaving them piled on the lawn, but I can’t remember for sure. Guide us, please. – E.W., West Side, Albuquerque
A. Your recollection of caution is correct. Here’s why.
Let’s say you choose to leave the leaf piles on the lawn. They will eventually mat and become sheets that will block most of the air and certainly stay moist, especially if you are watering periodically or we get some precipitation throughout this dormant season. Also, there will be no sunlight hitting those spaces.
The damp air and light blocking sheet spells disaster for the lawn underneath. Leaving those matted piles of leaves there will also create a certain amount of mold and mildew growing. The grass can’t battle those effects and it will probably die. Or at least become so maimed it’ll be a lot of work to get it back to health this coming spring.
Fescue lawn does slow down markedly during the winter months but it never really stops growing. The sunlight encourages the grass to grow more roots. Where you have healthy roots, in theory, you have healthy above-ground growth. That’s one of the reasons you water periodically all dormant season long, to keep the underground growth healthy and insulated.
If the leaves are dry, try mowing them so they are “minced” so to speak. Those very small pieces of leaf can be left on the lawn as they’ll be more likely to work themselves in (sort of) and yes, as they decompose, they’ll feed the lawn.
I suggest you get out there, before any matting occurs, and rake the leaves off the lawn.
So, what to do with the leaves, you wonder? Here are a couple of options.
First, rake them all up, aiming to keep your gardens tidy. Collect them in big garbage bags, and set them out later, curbside on the days that the city offers green waste pickup. The city’s website list the days and in the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority bill the days are announced too.
The only challenge will be having space to hold the bags that will be sort of out of the weather until the collections are made. You can also take them, bagged, to the city refuse collection places and drop them off.
I had PBS on my television recently and listened to one of the shorter space filler programs that happened to be about making a backyard habitat. One of the speakers recommends leaving the leaf piles (not on the lawn) as a place where bugs might congregate during winter. Then birds like spotted towhees and sparrows can rummage through the leaves looking for snacks. Helping the birds is a very good thing, especially if you set out dishes of water to encourage the birds to frequent your yard.
Once you’ve raked them off the lawn, sprinkle them around the perennials and surround the lilac, then give them a bit of a shower to weigh them to stay in place. That will help conserve moisture too, which is always a good thing in these parts.
In the spring, rake up the old leaves (and get rid of any bugs now) just in time for the plants to start to awaken and for the spring green waste removal. You are correct that the leaves left on the lawn will be a bad thing, so have fun raking up and keep on Diggin’ In.
Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to email@example.com.