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Mulch Mowing Enriches Soil

As autumn leaves fall, most homeowners are busy removing them from their properties. 

Leaves are considered a waste material and are bagged up and hauled away. Karen Simons of Katonah has a different approach. 

She sees the leaves as a resource she can use to improve the health of her lawn and the soil in which it’s rooted. “To me, having healthy soil is having a healthy ecosystem. You can help to address climate change by dealing with the health of soil,” she said.

Karen is principal of Hudson Varick Resources, Ltd., a consulting practice that focuses on sustainable and equitable economic development through local food systems. She is also a certified master gardener, serves on the Westchester Land Trust Advisory Board and the Bedford 2030 Board of Directors, and is an active member of the Rusticus Garden Club. 

Karen learned from the Leave Leaves Alone campaign that mowing leaves in place on the lawn is an alternate way to manage them. This method is known as mulch mowing because the leaves are broken down into small pieces that work their way down to the soil, adding nutrient rich organic material to the root zone of grasses. 

About three years ago she asked her landscaper, Pedro Martinez of PM Landscaping, to switch from blowing leaves off of her lawn to mulch mowing.  At first, Mr. Martinez was skeptical that either of them would be happy with the results. The grass looks greener now, but Mr. Martinez said, “you need patience; it takes about three to four years to make a difference.” 

However, achieving a nice lawn is not Karen’s only motivation for increasing the health of her soil. 

“Soil with organic matter absorbs carbon. Part of the climate issue is that soil is degraded and is not absorbing carbon,” she explained. Karen said soil degradation is a global issue and part of the challenge of food production because widespread use of pesticides has killed not only the unwanted plants and insects, but also the microorganisms necessary for soil to be healthy.

Peter DeLuca, owner of Organic Landscapes mulch mows for all of his customers’ properties, whether they are big or small. The baffles on his commercial mulching mower keep leaves from blowing out the side, enabling them to go through the blades multiple times. He said he sometimes has to go over a lawn several times to thoroughly break down the leaves without leaving bits visible on the lawn.

Mr. DeLuca and Karen agree that lawns can and should be maintained without chemical fertilizers and herbicides. “We’re all taught the way to a green lawn is through a bag of chemicals,” she said. “Is that the right value – to have three acres of carpet? Is that how we are being a good host?”

Karen leaves fallen leaves in her garden beds over the winter and doesn’t cut back perennial plants until spring. She composts any raked-up leaves and plant material removed from the beds. She has also established three small meadows that she estimates encompasses about half an acre. “When grass is left to grow longer, more carbon is pulled from the air,” she stated. She said having meadow areas saves time, saves money and looks pretty even when the plants are bent over and dying in the fall.

Karen acknowledged that homeowners interested in any of these methods will most likely need to take one small step at a time. She recommends starting with mulch mowing because it’s easy and doesn’t cost anything to try. 

She advised, “Just try it once and have a look – do the little bits bother you? Keep in mind they will be gone in a day or two, and will help build-up organic matter in your soil.” 

Story by Teresa Donkin appeared as a Climate Story in the Record Review (modified)