Fall Leaf Mulching

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For those in landscaping, fall is one of the hardest working seasons of the year with shorter daylight hours, large projects wrapping up, and the tsunami of leaves which “need” attending to before the snows fall. But what if the annual ritual of leaf clean-ups was reexamined? What about a simpler method, with a better understanding of the entire landscape, that leads to less labor, more profit, and satisfied customers?

Leaf mulching has several advantages over typical fall clean-ups including efficiency, profitability, and overall soil health. But it takes the right method and equipment for success. (Photo Credit: Pellenc)

The Why

When it comes to fall cleanups, you tend to see a lot of young bravado on display. I say that with certainty because in my younger days, I was long on biceps, but short on wisdom and learned intelligence. Then, in 2003, while walking in the woods one day, I noticed there was hardly a sound at my feet. The leaves hadn’t started falling yet and there was virtually no leaf litter on the forest floor. I leaned over, looked more closely, and noticed the remnants of skeletonized leaves—and lots and lots of worm cast. Hmm, I had never thought about what happens to leaves in the woods? As a landscaper, leaves were something one got all pumped up about in October, something that had to be handled, literally, in the coming weeks. “Leaves are bad, I’ve got to clean them up,” was the mindset.

Around 2000, I had downsized my business. Gone were the leaf vacuum trucks, the workforce, and most of the equipment, so how was I going to handle leaves with a body that wasn’t as strong as it once was? Maybe I was going about it all wrong? After all, it looked like some pretty good soil was created by those decomposed leaves. In the landscape business, aren’t we suppose to understand and value soil? I realized then and there in 2003, I needed to be doing things differently, but how?

Getting Buy-In

Over the next five years, I experimented with ways to handle leaves each fall. I experimented with mulching and blade types as well as keeping a catcher on my machine to hold the leaves under the deck for further processing. I would scatter the more finely chopped leaves in planting beds, the lawn, and more—recording what happened over time, what things looked like by spring, noting weather, and so forth. By 2008, I’d figured out a system. I no longer looked at leaves with contempt. I was all-in and never looked back. Mulched leaves stayed on-site, with nothing removed. I was motivated to work through the learning curve.

Shortly after I figured out a system, I began to share my insights with others in the trade. Some began to experiment with my methods, others were skeptical. While leaf mulching already existed in many rural areas, and golf courses, it wasn’t seen as something for the manicured home. The timing coincided with the economic challenges of 2008/09 and I thought, “Here’s a way for my local village’s conservation board to spread the word to homeowners about helping the village save on large annual fall leaf handling costs.” That’s when it took off. My village and a nearby city took notice, as did my county. So began a speaking tour with a group that developed with the hope this practice would become commonplace. Whatever the reason, be it ecological, profit, labor time savings, or shortening the use of blowers and noise, it’s a system I believe deserves consideration.

I find one of the biggest hurdles to the system is eliminating fear, that somehow you’ll “kill the lawn” or it won’t “look clean.” For this reason, it takes a few seasons to trust the process, witnessing how the leaves are gone by Memorial Day the following year. Often, depending on leaf type and weather, they are an early form of humus by season’s end and/or an attractive mulch. To achieve this, use only finely mulched leaves in beds, neatly arranged with gentle use of a blower and rake for a refined look.

The fall’s finely mulched leaves can then be top-offed, or “painted” as I call it, next Spring with store-bought mulch. As we know, mulch can have a short life span, and refreshing properties with leaf mulch can be a signature that sets you apart.

The How

To mulch leaves properly, it all comes down to the right equipment, mindset, and method. Typically, the purpose of leaf clean-ups is to remove the material so it doesn’t adversely affect the lawn, clutter garden beds, and get tracked in the house. Equally important is achieving a neat and orderly landscape—whatever that means for the client. But does it make sense to handle a leaf over and over again—blowing it across a property, loading it with a vacuum, driving it on a truck, then dumping it somewhere else?

What about eliminating that leaf at its point of contact on the lawn? Instead of assembling leaf piles, thereby making bulk, what if you went in the other direction and reduced the leaf size into tiny confetti-sized pieces? Mulched leaves take up only about one-tenth the space of whole leaves. These pieces can then be “lost” in the lawn, planting beds, and tree beds, putting back what nature intended to nourish the soil. Then it’s over and done. Might that save labor, fuel, disposal fees, and more? It did for me, by the wheelbarrow! And the cost to the client was kept low as well, which makes it an easy sell.

This process simply takes the right combination of attachment, blade, and method.

The right attachment. As to a mulching attachment, the Vulcher 2 is my choice. Vulchers are available to fit all commercial mowers; and depending on size, generally cost less than $300. The Vulcher 2, in combination with proper blades, traps leaves and enables multiple impacts for fine shredding.

Proper mulching blades, in conjunction with a device that traps leaves for repeated blade strike, is key. If you simply put mulching blades on and spit leaves out, you cut them in half or quarters at best. It’s essential to be able to process the leaves with enough blade hits, which is why having a quick and versatile attachment like the Vulcher is so handy. You control clipping flow and discharge. Closing off the discharge, not completely, just enough to process the leaves but not create an airtight back pressure, is what you want.

We don’t ever “bag.” On the properties we care for, we’ve educated our clients on the benefits of not bagging, explaining how clippings are often (in the Northeast) 70% water by volume/weight and will shrink down in the sn and be lost into the lawn.

The right blade & approach. When purchasing a leaf mulching blade, make sure you get the right kind. The direction of the teeth is important. You don’t want blades whose mulching teeth do not “yield” and bend away from the direction of contact; you want the opposite. You want the teeth to aggressively drive into the leaves. Gator blades, or similar, are worth every penny and pay for themselves because of the way they shred leaves on initial contact.

As to method, I actually timed myself over several years using different tactics and came away with a formula. Now, with my helpers, we do what I call the “rolling chop.” Each man has a role. Initially, we’ll all hit the ground and start forming up the piles/windrows. When I see the right amount, I drop off and start mulching, while the other men continue to stage the leaves. Then, one or more men also drop off to “dust off” the mulched leaves behind me. The key is to all end about the same time. The team works in a continuous circle flow, with no wasted steps.

The most inefficient work method is to have a man blow, stop, grab a rake and tarp, change over to lifting and loading or vaccing, then go back to blowing. No one likes the constant change. Once you start to flow with your role, be it chop, prep, or dust off, that’s it. You can pace yourself without lifting, changing over, and taking unproductive steps. This is not grueling. It’s simply uninterrupted rhythm and flow. My men prefer this type of approach BY FAR!

The right prep. Even with the right equipment, if you simply do the process the same way as vac and tarp, making huge piles you think you can stomp on and hit with a mower, it won’t work. You will fail and walk away unconvinced. It’s all about the size and height of the leaf piles.

I instruct my staff to keep it no taller than a foot or so. I’ll push down on the mower handles lifting the deck going over the pile on the initial pass, then drop the deck down on subsequent passes. If you simply make a 3′ pile, you’ll bulldoze into the pile and it will be a mess. You have to keep the mower deck atop the low piles. For ZTR mowers you likely have to have the windrows even lower, otherwise you’ll bulldoze the leaves as they pile up over the mower deck. Just plowing into a pile of leaves on a ZTR ride-on won’t work. I learned that in about 10 seconds in 2003.

Two tips for ride-ons: 1. Either back over the pile, initially taking a half deck at a top. This way your large back tires flatten the leaves and get under the deck more easily. 2. And/or take swing passes at the windrow, again half a deck. Your front tire will flatten leaves and the vacuum from the mower deck pulls leaves into the blades. Another option is to initially process with a walk behind (I use a Velke Sulky) to get the pile down lower and you move to the next pile while the ZTR man does the fine process work.

With the right equipment and method, it only takes time to gain confidence. Begin small and expand on success. Many companies I’ve taught mulch mowing have sold their vacuums, cut disposal costs by 70% or more, and seen profitability soar. They’re also returning a valuable resource back to the land. I’m happy to spread the knowledge. Have a profitable fall rally!

Downey is the President of Aesthetics Landscape Care, Inc., located in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, and has been working in the landscape industry for more than 40 years. Further information can be found on two websites where Downey is the chief technical educator, trainer, and contributor: www.leaveleavesalone.org/ and www.leleny.org. He is available for anyone wishing assistance.

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