Clearing the leaves from your lawn is part of a set of practices and displays involving the lawn that are related to social class. This includes a green lawn and a weed-free lawn. However, will these practices be disrupted if new recommendations suggest leaves should stay on the lawn because they are good for the grass and soil?
I can imagine this as part of a new set of lawn practices in the coming decades. This could include less grass. Grass that is not necessarily green. Fake turf. More stones, gravel, and rock. No watering. Smaller yards or no yards. Overall, less emphasis on a particular kind of lawn and more variety.
But, this could take a while. Practices regarding clearing leaves have a long history. Social norms take time to change. It could happen in a few communities or among influential people that lead the way. Maybe it requires some influential social media actors.
In my own yard, in recent years I have cleared a good number of the leaves and left others. Some get blown away and others buried by snow. Not every leaf has to go. Some stay in the bushes and beds. This year, I piled some leaves in a new garden we started earlier this year. We will see what is left in the spring and how the new growth begins.
But, would this movement extend to not doing anything about fallen leaves?
But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life — the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.
The ideal fertilizer and mulch can’t be found in your local garden center. They are available at no cost in the form of a tree’s own leaves. The best thing to do with fallen leaves is to mulch them with a lawn mower if your lawn consists of entirely of unvariegated turf grass (which it should not, given that turf grass requires immense amounts of water and poison to maintain). Our yard is a mixture of grasses and clovers and wildflowers, so we can safely let our leaves lie. If a high wind carries them away, it’s hard not to wail, “Wait! I was saving those!”
And the leaves that fall across every inch of this wild half acre of suburbia are so much prettier than any unnaturally green lawn beaten into submission by stench-spewing machinery. All those golden sugar maple leaves hold onto the light, and for weeks it looks as though our whole yard is on fire, even in the rain. Who could be troubled by a blanket made of light? A blanket keeping all the little creatures safe from the cold?
The argument above suggests the leaves are better for the lawn, creatures, and the environment more broadly. Perhaps this is the way to sell it: your lawn will be healthier if you leave the leaves. But, if the goal is a better relationship with nature, does this also mean other forms of lawn care should be undone as well? Once the leaves stay, what else about American lawn practices should be jettisoned?
The bigger question may not be about gas powered machines but about what a better suburban or single-family home relationship with nature might look like. Amid all of the sprawling land use and driving, how could the open space in individual lots better serve nature? Less emphasis on well-maintained grass could limit water use and provide more habitat space. Whether Americans could find this acceptable in appearance, for property values, and in connection to nature, is another matter.
Cleaning up the leaves in a suburban lawn is rarely enforced or legislated. It is just an expected task for the suburban homeowner: thou shall not have many (or any) leaves in your lawn by the end of the fall season. Why is this the case? Here are a few possible reasons:
Clearing leaves is an unquestioned social norm that simply continues on because people did it before. That leaves could be beneficial for lawns and garden beds may not matter; the inertia is already there for clearing leaves and it could take time for new patterns to emerge.
There are commercial and industrial forces invested in making sure lawns are seeded, treated, and cleared. There are rakes and leaf blowers to sell. It is big business helping Americans remove leaves.
Suburbanites pass along this social norm to each other through conversation and exhibited behavior. Neighbors share words while outside about their lawns. One suburbanite rakes their leaves because they see their neighbors doing it.
Perhaps this practice will pass into history at some point. But, as long as we have a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and their lawns, there will be more years of raking, bagging, mulching, and clearing leaves.
Within the next month or so in the Chicago region, leaves will fall at varying rates and cover lawns. These could be leaves from trees in that yard or, given occasional high winds, leaves from several houses away. They could be wet or dry, big or small, green, red, orange, or other shades. And Americans will spend countless hours trying to corral them all, stuff them in bags or bins, and ship them somewhere else.
Why? Because even in the fall, a season that can be good for growing grass, the sanctity of the lawn must be upheld. Even as trees and bushes grow sparse and the flowers that once adorned the property wither, the well-kept lawn is important. Rakes must be employed. Blowers can be even better (at least when the leaves are drier) to efficiently move large amounts. Mowers can be used not only to keep that grass looking uniform but to mulch leaves.
And the best fall lawns, the ones showing the suburbanites of a higher social class or those who care the most about their property (values), will have no visible leaves. They are a blemish and may be removed daily. Carpets of leaves may be pretty in more natural settings but not on the suburban lawn: it must continue to show off the home and its owner until either covered by snow or gone dormant for the winter.