Leaves: Bag ‘em or Leave ‘em?

By Rebekah Heppner, Master Gardener Volunteer

I thought about leaves a lot last month. There wasn’t time to write up my thoughts then because, well, there were So. Many. Leaves. I don’t have any big trees on my property, but my neighbors do, so in the spring I have leaves: live oak leaves, tabebuia leaves . . . and other unknown leaves that fall into my flower beds and onto my walkways and next to the curb in front of my yard.

What is the right thing to do with all these leaves? Depends on who you ask. The National Wildlife Federation says, “Leave the leaves,” let them break down where they are to add nutrients to the soil and provide nesting material and habitat for wildlife. But in my Florida Water Stewards class I was told, “Don’t let those leaves get washed into storm drains and add nutrients to our waterways,” contributing to algal blooms and the dreaded red tide.

So, which is it? Bag ‘em up to keep them out of the waterways or leave ‘em to improve the soil? I have thought about this tirelessly while cleaning leaves out of storm drains as a volunteer for Pinellas County Adopt-a-Drain. I don’t have any drains near my house so adopted the ones near one of my favorite St. Petersburg lakes. One thing we know for sure: YOU SHOULD NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES BLOW OR RAKE YOUR LEAVES DIRECTLY INTO A STORM DRAIN. Sounds obvious, but I guess not to everyone. (Not to mention: Don’t throw your dog’s poop bag into the storm drains. Really obvious, right?)

But what about the ones that fall at your house? Bag ‘em or leave ‘em? After much drain-cleaning thought, I conclude that you should leave them, but ONLY if you do all you can to see that they will stay on your grass or in your flower beds and not blow or wash into the street where they can easily find their way to a storm drain. Shredding them with a mower or leaf shredder is helpful if you have those.

I do rake up some leaves at my house, but I don’t send them to the landfill. I move what I can to parts of my yard that are far from the curb (no need to buy mulch) and use the rest in my composter. The leaves I rake out of my adopted drains, unfortunately, do go in the trash. (Who knows what toxins have been used by the person who thought it was okay to blow them into a drain?)

If you have a storm drain near you—or near your favorite lake—why not “adopt” it? It’s an easy way to help the environment. You just need to keep the 10 feet around the drain clear of leaves (and other debris) and check to be sure nothing has been blown (or thrown!) into them—especially right before it rains. Visit the Adopt-a-Drain website or watch this video to learn more.

And here is one simple idea we should all be able to agree on: Only Rain Down the Drain!

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Posted: May 11, 2022


Category: Home Landscapes, Natural Resources, SFYL Hot Topic, Work & Life
Tags: Compost, Drains, Garden, Landscape, Leaves, Mastergardener, Stormwater, Water


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