the dirt

Sustainable Landscaping: Don’t leave out the leaves

Autumn leavesFew places in the world can match the explosion of color we enjoy in the Chesapeake region when autumn comes around.  That delight also brings a mild sense of dread: What to do with those beautiful leaves once they fall?  Do we rake them, bag them, mulch them, compost them or ignore them?

As a recently certified Master Watershed Steward for Anne Arundel County, Maryland, I can unequivocally say, and the research proves it, that proper leaf management is one of the most important elements to sustaining our land and waterways. The good news is: by taking a few small and simple steps in our own backyard, we can have a huge impact on saving the bay.  For a deeper dive, the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy ( is an excellent resource for understanding how we can better steward our environment. For this month’s blog, I will summarize much of the content I helped develop on the academy’s Website regarding leaf management.

Step 1. Remove leaves from paved surfaces, such as parking lots, sidewalks, street curbs and storm drains. This improves the aesthetic appeal of your home and neighborhood; makes the area safer because wet leaves can be very slippery and cause accidents; and best of all, stops leaf debris from entering the storm water system and flowing into Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Decomposing leaves on the scale we see every year is more than our waterways can handle, soaking up life-sustaining oxygen and contributing to the dead zones and fish kills in Spa Creek and other bay tributaries.

Step 2. Mow the leaves into the lawn. This will improve the condition of the grass. The decomposed leaves will release nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil, the same nutrients in fertilizer typically applied in the fall. Set your mower to a four-inch height and mow weekly.

Step 3. Turn leaves into mulch and soil amendments.  To do this, rake your leaves onto a large tarp and drag and unload to a flat open area where the mower can chop the leaves into small pieces.  While one person operates the mower, others feed the mower by raking the leaves into the mowers path… over and again until the leaves are well shredded. Spread a three to four inch layer of shredded leaves on top of shrub beds and mature trees (leaves will compact over time) or save for future use in a wire bin where the leaves will continue to decompose. Add a nitrogen source (grass clippings next spring) to produce an excellent fertilizer or soil amendment.

Step 4. Bag your leaves, if do-it-yourself mulching and composting is not for you.  Most municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay region have leaf collection days.  In the city of Annapolis, yard waste removal collection day is on Wednesdays. For more information, visit:

A double whammy: Leaf decomposition delivers a double whammy on water quality, consuming oxygen and releasing nitrogen. Researchers Justin Strynchuk and John Royal find that leaf decay in water consumes up to seven times more oxygen than leaf decay on land, robbing the waters of dissolved oxygen and stressing virtually all marine life. Anne Arundel County rivers have an average annual yield of 1.81 tons of Nitrogen per square mile. A lot of this Nitrogen comes from the breakdown of leaves. This excess of nutrients causes an increased growth of algae blooms. Algae expansion limits the amount of sunlight and reduces the oxygen available for fish, plants and other aquatic life.

Free compost for Annapolis city residents: Collected composted leaves and yard clipping from Annapolis are frequently delivered and available to private citizens on a first-come, first-served basis at Truxton Park Swimming Pool parking lot.

About Missy Jones

Missy Jones, owner of Architectural Gardens, is a Master Watershed Steward in Anne Arundel County. Since growing up on the Severn River watershed, her passion is to help save the bay and educate homeowners about conservation landscaping, thus reducing the negative impact of stormwater runoff. Landscaping is in her blood: Missy’s father owned a landscaping company in the Annapolis area and she’s been gardening ever since she learned to walk. Call Missy for a consult, 800.280.2103, and let’s get started.
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2 Responses to Sustainable Landscaping: Don’t leave out the leaves

  1. Suzy says:

    Missy…we have a LOT of oak leaves. Can we mow those up too? We’re concerned about too much acidity for our sandy soil AA lawn.

  2. david patterson says:


    I enjoy your blog. I always mow over my leaves. I was never sure if that was healthy for the lawn, but now I know. thanks.

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