Bag the rake and fire up the lawn mower. As the serious fall leaf-gathering begins, that’s the message nearly two dozen communities in Westchester are delivering to local landscapers and homeowners.
They want people to stop raking leaves to the curb and instead just run them over with a mower and leave them on the lawn as a fine mulch. It’s good for your grass (and soil), good for the environment and safer for drivers negotiating streets piled high with wet leaves. Great for your peace of mind, too — say goodbye to the constant din of leaf blowers.
Mowing leaves instead of raking them could also save some serious taxpayer money. Last year, Westchester spent $4.5 million a year to cart away leaves, says Marianne Petronella, director of resource management for the Department of Environmental Facilities. Plus, municipalities pay a collective $3 million in tipping fees for the county to truck the collected leaves to out-of-county composting facilities. That’s a $7.5 million net cost for leaf removal.
“We’re paying through our county taxes as well as at the municipal level,” says Nina Orville, executive director of the Southern Westchester Energy Action Consortium (www.sweac.org). “There are also municipal expenses associated with leaf collection and disposal,” including vehicles, labor and fuel.
Yonkers pays about $650,000 a year for labor and tipping fees to collect and dispose of leaves and other yard waste, says Brad Tito, director of sustainability for the city.
For the current fiscal year, Scarsdale has budgeted $738,215 “just for fall leaves,” says Deputy Village Manager Steve Pappalardo. There have been several initiatives to encourage village homeowners and landscapers to adopt leaf mulching practices and this year, for the first time, leaf mulching is being used in all 32 village parks and grounds. If all goes well, athletic fields will be added to the program next year, he says.
In the town of Bedford, it takes “an average of 10 people and 10 pieces of equipment six weeks” to pick up and remove leaves, says Commissioner of Public Works Kevin Winn.
“As taxpayers, we’re the ones footing the bill for this,” Orville says.
This spring, the cities of New Rochelle and Yonkers got a $50,000 grant from the Westchester Community Foundation and the National Urban Sustainability Directors Network to promote leaf mulching by educating homeowners and landscapers. The Greenburgh Nature Center is the primary contractor to deliver the programs.
Anne Jaffe Holmes, the Nature Center’s director of conservation education, has been one of the loudest and surest voices in the Lower Hudson Valley on this issue for the last couple of years. Holmes, who lives in Irvington, helped found the group Love ’Em and Leave ’Em a couple of years ago and is among a core group of environmentalists in the village of Irvington (also former Mayor Nikki Coddington and Trustee Mark Gilliland) who have been strong advocates of mowing and mulching instead of raking. For several years, leaves in all village parks have been mulched in place instead of raked up.
Photo of Anne by Joe Larese)
“The key to this is how you go about creating behavior change,” Holmes says. Fall traditionally means raking leaves and it can be hard to get people to change what they’ve always done in their yards.
“It would be great if we got a 60 or 70 percent reduction in leaves — if this really takes off,” says Holmes, about the current efforts in Yonkers and New Rochelle. “This year, even if we got a 15 percent reduction, that would be huge.”
The mulched leaves also provide valuable nutrients and organic matter for lawns and garden beds — no more lugging home heavy bags of fertilizer and soil amendments.
In Rockland, which did not receive grants for this program, many gardeners have already adopted mulching. “I have been doing this for a good number of years now — slowly building up the organic content of my very impoverished ‘building contractor quality’ soil,” says Sona Mason, a master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland.
“We really need to educate the landscapers [on the benefits of leaf mulching], since they are listened to as ‘experts’ by the majority of home-owners in Rockland county,” she says.
Yonkers has already hosted two demonstrations for homeowners and landscapers, with big piles of leaves and various lawn mowers, to see how it all works.
“For the most part, the reaction is ‘I didn’t believe it till I saw it for myself,’ ” Tito says. The city’s Organic Yard accepts about 23,000 tons of leaves every year, he says.
“We’re really reaching out to homeowners to get them to request leaf-mulching services from their landscapers,” Tito says. “We have a letter that they can hand to their landscapers.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” says Tim Downey of Aesthetic Landscape Care in Hastings-on-Hudson. He’s the landscaper who actually rides through the mountains of leaves at these demos, and he loves seeing people’s expressions as he pulverizes the piles of leaves into nearly invisible bits. “We always treated leaves like litter. Why not treat them like a valuable resource?”
(photos of Downey by Joe Larese)
Downey, a one-man operation with 33 clients, stopped gathering up leaves in his clients’ yards a few years ago, to save money and valuable time in the fall. “When I first started doing it, I didn’t say anything (and no one noticed!). Now I’m able to keep costs down for my clients.”
“They love it — they absolutely love it,” he adds.
Last year, county Legislator Mary Jane Shimsky, of District 12, which includes both Irvington and Greenburgh, was instrumental in getting a $20,000 grant from the Westchester Board of Legislators for pilot mowing and mulching programs around the county. “The best way to educate people is with live demonstrations,” she says.
Too often, Shimsky says, programs that are good for the environment are seen as bad for the economy. Not this one. “You can do things for the environment that are good for the economy,” she says. “Here, governments can save money because they’re carting less waste over less distance — and it cuts down on carbon emissions.”
The mulched leaves also provide valuable nutrients and organic matter for lawns and garden beds. Rather than lugging home heavy bags of fertilizer and soil amendments from the garden center, “why not use what Mother Nature has to offer?” Shimsky says. “You’re saving money and you’re saving your back.”
6 p.m. on Oct. 16: Redmond Park, 207 Cook Ave., Yonkers, coordinated by Anne Jaffe Holmes of the Greenburgh Nature Center and Love ’em and Leave ’em.
1 p.m. Nov. 2: Glenwood Lake Park, at Bergholtz Drive and Calhoun Ave., New Rochelle, also by Holmes.
Another advocacy group, Leave Leaves Alone, which is based in Bedford, is happy to arrange demos for people interested in seeing leaf mulching in action. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.leaveleavesalone.org or www.facebook.com/leaveleavesalone.
To see a list of the Westchester communities that are adopting and promoting on-site leaf mulching, go to http://environment.westchestergov.com/residents/yard-waste.
ADVANTAGES OF MOWING AND MULCHING
Chopped-up leaves add valuable nutrients and organic matter to your lawn, reducing the need for fertilizers and helping the soil to better retain water. Less watering in dry spells.
Conversely, if left in the street, leaves and other yard waste clog storm sewers and release nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate into our lakes, streams and rivers. And piles of wet leaves are dangerous for drivers.
It cuts down on the need for leaf blowers, the ultimate suburban nuisance.
Transporting leaves wastes labor and fuel and contributes to pollution. It also wastes taxpayer money.
Grass keeps growing well into fall, so you’re already mowing. Why not have your mower do double duty?
No raking! Go for a walk instead or watch a football game on TV.
All you need is a mulching lawn mower, a leaf shredder or a hand-held tool that vacuums and shreds leaves. Many lawn mowers can be retrofitted with a mulching kit.
A regular mower may be OK for some lawns but not for deep layers of leaves. And it may take a few passes with a mulching mower to adequately chop up heavily layered lawns.
“It does take a little bit of work and a little bit of common sense,” says Mark Gilliland, a trustee for the village of Irvington who has been mowing and mulching his leaves for about five years. “I use an electric mower and frankly there are times, to get the chop I like, when I have to go over it twice. It’s a little bit experience based.”
Gilliland suggests playing with the height of your mower and making sure the blades are sharp and that your mower has a powerful enough engine to get the job done.
Worried that your pristine green lawn will look ugly with mulched leaves on it? No, the shredded leaves will generally disappear and not be able to be seen within a few days. Any remaining fragments will fall into the root zone and decompose over the winter. The commercial machines used by landscapers are so powerful that the leaves are pulverized into tiny bits.
“I have a postage stamp of a lawn in Scarsdale and I hired one of the recommended landscapers last year and he now takes nothing out of my lawn to the curb,” says Marianne Petronella, director of resource management for the Westchester Department of Environmental Facilities. “My lawn is just as pretty as anybody else’s and the moisture retention is terrific. Everybody around me has their sprinklers going on — but not me.”
You can also just leave the leaves where they fall in your garden beds and around your shrubs and trees. It’s not as tidy looking as raking or blowing them out of the beds and then shredding them, but they’ll still protect the roots of your shrubs and perennials over the winter as they begin to decompose and add valuable organic nourishment for your plants.
Want more mowing tips? Check out the FAQs on the Love ’em and Leave ’em website, www.leleny.org. It also has a list of recommended landscapers.