• David R. Lamb, ASLA

Unnecessary Maintenance?

One of the banes of maintenance is having to listen to leaf blowers in your own or a neighbor’s yard. The deafening sound that seems to go on endlessly is distracting and in some cases nerve racking. There is no doubt that the practice of using hurricane force wind makes for a quick clean up, but what is the impact on the health of the environment in the landscape? And what is the visual result of the cleanup that is so desirable?

Part of the problem is the general public’s taste for a ‘manicured’ look. When there is not a leaf out of place, the edge of the lawn looking like it was cut with a laser and the lawn itself just receiving a military crew cut, then the owner can breathe with a sigh of relief that all is well. If the Queen of England showed up in an hour, there would be no problem receiving her. However, there is a cost in the vision of perfection.

To remove dead leaves and grass clippings from everywhere, it requires gale force winds of such magnitude, that it interrupts a very essential process that happen continuously in the open woods. In an undisturbed woodland or field, the dead leaves and stems of plants naturally fall to the ground where micro-organism in the soil break down the organic mass. In turn, mycorrhizal activity help to break down and release the nutrients from the bio mass and allow the growing plant roots in the soil to take up the nutrients and start the cycle all over again.

All this activity happens in what is called the humus layer of the soil. It is a delicate zone because it is not mixed with the subsoil of sands, clays or loam. Thus, it is at the mercy of wind fire or physical movement of animals or machines. If this critical “soil horizon” as it is called is removed from the top of the soil, the recycling process is interrupted, halting the natural breakdown of nutrients and depriving the living plants of the essential foods to grow.

So, it is that when leaf blowers blast out the humus layer, the situation demands that fertilizers be applied along with a mulch to keep the weeds down and the ground looking manicured. This is an expensive and unnecessary effort, however, one that home owners seem to be happy to pay for and continue to do.

The solution is to create a ground level planting mass that will allow fallen leaves to get lost in the living plant mass. Pachysandra is a good plant for this as it will grow 6-8” in height and establish a fairly uniform mass. When leaves fall on this plant, the maintenance person should encourage the leaves to fall into the ground cover with the use of a leaf rake or a light application of a leaf blower. This ensures that the leaves fall to the ground and continue the nutrient cycle. For a more complex planting using various types of perennials and ground forbes, the maintenance person will need to be more careful about working the leaves to the ground layer.

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