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.