Fall Leaves: Rake, Blow Or Let It Go

EAST LANSING, Mich. ( MainStreet) -- Fall leaves are looming and homeowners one again need to decide whether to lug out the rakes, let the wind or a gas- or electric-powered tool blow leaves away or just let them lie.

Neighbors and the hardware and garden industry await their decision.
Whether you buy a $6 rake or a $4,500 riding mower, there are industries waiting to help you handle what falls in fall.

Fall leaf cleanup is the last hurrah at the local Home Depot ( HD), Lowe's ( LOW), Sears ( SHLD), Ace Hardware or any other shop that supplies the rakes, blowers, mulching mowers and leaf bags necessary to tackle everything the trees throw at them. Last year, sales at hardware and garden supply stores jumped from $23.7 billion in August and $23.8 billion in September to $24.1 billion in October.

That's nowhere near the $29 billion spent per month during the high planting, gardening and project season last April and May, but was the last uptick stores saw before sales skidded to $23.6 million in November and $22.3 million in December. Last October's $24 billion take was also a vast improvement over the $22 billion spent in October 2009, if still well below the pre-recession $26 billion of October 2008 and $27 billion of the same month in 2007.

It's more than a bit less lucrative for municipal governments that have to cart off bags of leaves after the 1995 Solid Waste Management Act prohibited the disposal of yard waste to local landfills. Meanwhile, the 1970 Clean Air Act forbid leaf burning in towns of 7,500 or more and local governments restrict compost piles in densely populated areas because of the offensive odor. So which landscaping option is the best way to tackle leaf litter?

"I do a little bit of all three," says Dr. Bert Cregg, an associate professor in Michigan State University's Department of Horticulture who conducts research and programs on tree physiology and management of nursery, landscape and Christmas tree systems. "I've got a couple of acres and live out in the country, so what I'll do is I'll rake about as much as I can stand and then I have a chipper shredder and pass things through that to use them as mulch."

Gregg says environmental factors prevent any one method from being ideal. With that in mind, the street presents the pros and cons of raking, blowing and letting the leaves go as compost or mulch:

Easily the cheapest option, a standard plastic rake costs as little as $6 to $7; steel and aluminum rakes fetch $12 to $18; and high-end aluminum landscaping rakes go for $30 to $60. In some yards, it's the only option.

"A lot of it depends on your location and your yard situation," Gregg says. "For people who are in tighter quarters and cities, probably some raking is the best way to go."

It's not just small acreage that needs the tough love of a time-consuming rake. In the Pacific Northwest, where fall brings not only cool air but increasingly moist weather, leaf litter can cement itself into heavy clumps that can clog up a mulching mower and laugh off the efforts of leaf blowers. The deciduous trees there are mercifully outnumbered by evergreens, but heavy, sodden leaves are still enough to warrant attention.

"It's so wet there in the fall that leaves come down into a big, wet layer," Gregg says. "In that case, you're pretty much down to raking."

Maybe if you have a thicket of woods nearby or a sprawling stand of property, letting the wind take leaves away may be an appealing option. If you're anywhere where the neighbors are close enough to complain when the leaf drifts reach their windows or call the local city government about the toll your tree's uncollected leaves are taking on their lawn and weekend workload, the wind probably wouldn't be a great groundskeeper.

"The challenge with letting the wind take care of the leaves is that, if you're in a neighborhood, it might not make you real popular with the neighbors," Gregg says. "The other thing is that the wind doesn't always blow in the same direction, so when you think you might have gotten rid of the problem one day, it can be right back the next."

Landscapers tend to love the leaf blower, and it's become an accessible lawn tool at less than $40 for low-output 7- to 7.5-amp Toro ( TTC), Weed Eater, Troy-Bilt and Craftsman blowers. The problem, however, is that the little blowers that could and their $500, 204-mile-per-hour, gas-powered backpack counterparts generate a lot of noise, which restricts their use in some municipalities. If you're going to make that much noise, you may as well feed your lawn while doing it by ...

Composting and mulching
Homeowners don't have to abandon raking and blowing altogether if they'd still like a nice, clear lawn. They should just put some of that leaf litter and the nutrients within to good use.

A Michigan State University study found that maple and oak leaves mulched into Kentucky bluegrass helped reduce dandelions by 80% during the first year of mulching and another 50% the second year. Gregg recommends an inch or two of leaf mulch for lawns, flower beds, shrubs and trees, but no more.

"One way to think about it is there's this natural cycling of nutrients," Gregg says. "The trees are taking up nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil and basically just depositing them back down, so if you're able to capture and reuse that you're conserving the resource."

"In just about any situation, if you can try to collect the leaves, compost them and somehow use them around your property, that's really the best scenario," Gregg says. "Certainly we don't want people burning leaves anymore, and in many places you can't."

The simplest way to mulch the lawn is by simply running over the leaves with a lawn mower. Gregg does this by mowing the leaves, letting the mulched leaves clog the mower's chute and and letting the mulch go directly into the lawn. Mulching mowers are another option, but can start at $200 for Black & Decker ( SWK) electric models, $350 to $400 for Craftsman, Toro and Honda gas-powered versions and $4,500 or more for Stanley and Ariens riding mowers.

"Some people want to run the lawnmower over leaves, and depending on your situation that can work," Gregg says. "If your leaves are thick and heavy coming down, people with walk-behind mowers are going to have to be out there a couple times a week."

If that's the case, or if an expansive property just has more leaves and other leavings than a mower can handle, Gregg recommends a chipper shredder that allows homeowners to gather their leaves, truck them over and shred them into a fine layer of mulch. Gregg's chipper shredder turns 15 yards of leaves into a yard of mulch, but $750 to $800 Craftsman models offer 10-to-1 power while $900 to $1,000 Brush Master models or a $1,200 to $1,500 Stanley can turn 12 bags of yard waste into a bag of chips.

The ideal solution, however, is turning all of those leaves, chips and other leftovers into a nutrient-rich mulch by composting it in piles or bins. If homeowners throw some grass clippings into their pile for a bit of nitrogen and some moisture and pile-turned air to break it down, they can both cut back on their waste and give their lawns, trees and gardens sustenance without shelling out for bags of mulch and fertilizer.

"If people have compost bins and compost piles, that's really optimum," Gregg says. "Especially if you're putting in a lot of grass clippings over the season. People who do a lot of composting talk about mixing greens and browns because you want to balance grass that has a lot of nitrogen in it with leaves that have more carbon."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

>To submit a news tip, send an email to: tips@thestreet.com.


Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

If you liked this article you might like

How to Think and Spend Like a Billionaire

How to Think and Spend Like a Billionaire

A New Home Has More Tax Benefits Than You Think

A New Home Has More Tax Benefits Than You Think

Most Popular Home Renovations and How to Pay for Them

Most Popular Home Renovations and How to Pay for Them

Here Are 5 Things You Need to Doublecheck Before Filing Your Tax Return

Here Are 5 Things You Need to Doublecheck Before Filing Your Tax Return

Irish Beers Worth Trying For St. Patrick's Day

Irish Beers Worth Trying For St. Patrick's Day