Benefits of Mulching Your Chicagoland Yard with Leaves

Written by Greenwise Team
Published on September 7, 2018
image of leaves and rake
LEAVES BRING MUCH-NEEDED NUTRIENTS TO YOUR YARD AND GARDEN. Did you know that 8 million tons of leaves go into landfills every year? Why is that a big deal? It’s a problem because, without enough oxygen to decompose, all those leaves emit damaging greenhouse gases. Plus, disposing of your leaves in a landfill misses a golden opportunity. Think of leaves as naturally occurring vitamins in your yard or free turf builders falling from the trees. Take advantage of this free gift from Mother Nature and create a lush, healthy lawn by using your leaves as mulch for your Chicagoland yard.

Benefits of Using Leaves as Mulch

Mulching with leaves is both beautiful and functional. It increases the aesthetic value of your property, prevents weeds from taking over, stabilizes and insulates the soil, and adds important nutrients back to your garden, promoting healthier, more beautiful flowers.

Leaf Mulch Stabilizes New Plants

Mulch is especially effective for helping to stabilize new plants. For all your leftover leaves, compost them. If you don’t have a compost system in place, make sure your local government composts the bagged leaves; otherwise, they end up in the landfill.

Mulch Improves Soil Quality

When choosing a mulch for vegetable beds or to improve the quality of the soil, leaf mulch is the best option. Leaf mulch breaks down quickly, increases soil fertility, and draws worms and other beneficial organisms to your garden. And research has shown that mulching with leaves can suppress weeds up to 84% by the following season.

Mulch Provides Moisture and Temperature Regulation

Think about it. Trees in the forest get up to 80% of their nutrients from leaves. You don’t see anyone raking leaves in the forest. “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,” said Melissa Hopkins of the National Audubon Society.

Local Critters Need Leaves

Leaves are home to critters ranging from turtles and toads to birds, mammals, and invertebrates that rely on leaf litter for food, shelter, and nesting material. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.

How to Turn Your Leaves into Mulch

When you decide to keep your leaves for mulch, moderation is key. You need to break up the leaves and make sure the sun can reach the grass. You never want thick piles of leaves, which will prevent the sunlight from getting through and retain moisture that will kill the grass underneath. Besides smothering the grass, leaving a thick layer of dead leaves can cause fungal issues over the winter. The best way to break up the leaves is to mow over them, shredding them and distributing the leaves evenly over the grass. Just make sure you can see the grass with only about 10-20% leaf coverage. For the rest of your leaves, you can rake them around your trees and bushes in three- to-six-inch piles to help nourish them. Or, throw the mulched leaves in your garden. According to Sam Bauer, a turf grass researcher at the University of Minnesota, it doesn’t matter how many leaves you unload on the garden, as long as you let them decompose over the winter before tilling them under in the spring. Adding organic matter to your gardens is a good thing. And leaf mulch provides an excellent source of nutrition for your plants. It’s beautiful to boot. It is aged, dark in color, and easily biodegradable, supplying nutrition for your plants. Suppressing weeds is another bonus. THE FINER AND DARKER THE MULCH, THE BETTER.

Not All Mulch is Created Equal

THE FINER AND DARKER THE MULCH, THE BETTER. Mulches that are primarily hardwood and have not been aged can actually damage delicate perennials and pull naturally occurring nitrogen away from your plants. And, you should be aware of where your mulch comes from. Big box stores, like Lowes or Home Depot, might have great deals on mulch, but knowing where your mulch comes from matters. Greenwise uses locally sourced mulch. That means it’s more sustainable, decreases your carbon footprint, and vastly reduces the spread of disease. For example, mulch from the big box stores could potentially be from diseased trees in South Carolina. That means you are introducing diseases from across state lines to your garden. And no one wants that.

What Does Good Mulch Look Like?

The finer and darker the mulch, the better. The finer the grind, the more decomposed it is and the more nutrition it can return to the landscape. Greenwise uses two types of mulch: leaf and triple-ground premium hardwood. Just like it sounds, leaf mulch is made up of leaf debris and branches. Leaves contain important nutrients, and when we put them back into the garden as mulch, they complete the nutrition cycle and improve the structure of your soil. Our triple-ground premium hardwood mulch is our standard for garden beds and most projects. The more a mulch is ground, the more it’s like a beautiful, rich compost for your garden. Through grinding, mulch gets aged like a light compost, adding needed nutrients to your soil. This rich, chocolate brown mulch makes every garden look complete.

How Much Mulch Do I Need?

If you have never mulched before, Greenwise recommends two to three inches of mulch at the most. Overmulching is bad and can suppress plant material. When it comes to mulch, less is more. A two-inch layer is enough to support a healthy garden and should be applied on an annual basis every spring or fall. If you have mulched in the past season, you can simply refresh your mulch by adding an inch or two.

Are There Any Negatives to Using Mulch?

Besides using too much mulch as mentioned above, you mostly can’t go wrong with mulch. Here are a few things to keep in mind. Fungal disease: If any of your plants and trees have fungal diseases such as rust or apple scab, do not compost infected leaves or stems. Thoroughly clean up garden areas in the fall to reduce overwintering sites for the fungal spores. If you’re not sure if your plants have fungal disease, ask a certified arborist or horticulturalist to come out to inspect your property.  Leaf-a-palooza: If your property is heavily wooded, leaving all of the leaf debris may be too much of a good thing. A thick layer of dead leaves could harm your lawn. Due to the thatch created, sunlight and air circulation are cut off, both of which you need for healthy turf. Leaf debris left on the lawn over the winter can also lead to snow mold. Snow mold is a type of fungus damaging to the lawn.  Messy lawns:  Some homeowners don’t like how messy leaves look lying on their lawn. Also, they don’t want their debris to blow onto their neighbor’s property, creating a mess next door. If you use hardwood mulch in your flower beds, mulching the leaves and spreading them into your gardens may not be an option.

How Chicagoland Cities Handle Leaf Waste

In Chicago, dumping leaves and other yard waste in landfills was banned in 1990, but citizens are concerned that this law isn’t being followed as closely as it should. WBEZ’s Curious City (October 2017) looked into this and found that by and large, Chicago does not follow this law and most of its yard waste is probably in landfills. Evanston offers fee-based carts for organic waste. Food waste now can “ride along” in yard waste carts with grass clippings and leaves, which helps prevent filling up the landfill. Elk Grove Village regularly picks up paper bags of waste with fee-based stickers. And Oak Park offers three methods: fee-based compost bins that accept both food scraps and yard waste, scheduled pickup of leaf piles on street curbs, and yard waste-only carts or bags that are marked with specially issued stickers and left next to — but not in — garbage carts. Need help with your mulching? Call Greenwise at 847.866.1930. We can supply you with mulch so that you can spread it in your garden beds, or we can both supply and apply it for you.