There are two schools of thought when it comes to managing leaf litter at this time of year. Some people believe in leaving leaf litter as natural mulch on perennial beds and to provide habitat for beneficial insects. Others believe in removing dead leaves to prevent disease and discourage pests.
But did you know that piles of dead leaves and other plant refuse create a breeding ground for ticks? I didn’t!
This past spring, while we were all confined to our homes, I was cleaning the layer of leaves left the previous fall as protective mulch on my perennial beds. It was a therapeutic activity until I discovered an engorged blacklegged tick in my armpit and ended up on a course of antibiotics.
As a new resident of New England, I assumed that ticks were found in high grasses in summer and fall. But during my virtual office visit, the attending physician informed me otherwise.
Apparently, ticks are alive and well throughout the year and can be found in leaf litter as well as high grasses and low-lying bushes. Moreover, springtime is particularly rife with small tick nymphs, which are harder to notice when attached to the body. My fear of contracting Lyme disease convinced me to learn to manage leaf litter while minimizing my exposure to ticks.
In a recent study on the abundance of ticks in leaf litter, Robert Jordan, a research scientist at the Monmouth County (New Jersey) Mosquito Control Division, noted that homeowners need to be aware that “accumulations of leaves and other plant debris provide ideal host-seeking and survival conditions for immature blacklegged ticks.” His research results indicate that the common practice of raking or blowing leaves to dump in edge habitats (where lawn meets woods) can result in three times as many blacklegged ticks in these areas the following spring.
With this in mind, mulching fall leaves seems to be a better way to manage leaf litter than blowing or raking unless you plan to bag the leaves to take to a composting facility or else dump them far away from outdoor seating or play areas in your yard.
I prefer mulching my leaves, and here are some of the reasons why.
• Mulching gets rid of the piles of dead leaves, which harbor ticks, creating an unfavorable habitat for these pests.
• One single leaf may take a couple years to decompose while mulched leaves decompose quickly.
• Leaves mulched into your lawn will act as a natural fertilizer.
• Mulched leaves tilled into your vegetable and flower gardens add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
• Mulched leaves make a desirable “brown” pile, the high-carbon component needed for your compost.
• Mulching is all-around easier on your back than raking or blowing and hauling leaves.
All it takes is a simple mulching mower equipped with double blades that cut the grass clippings and leaves into small pieces. Running the mower over a thin layer of fall leaves once a week or so is ideal, but you may need to mow more often to keep up.
If you are interested in saving the shredded leaves, collect them with the mower’s bag attachment. Storing a stash of shredded leaves near your compost pile makes it readily available to add to your compost pile to build healthy, odorless compost.
Some gardening websites suggest using shredded leaves as a layer of mulch on top of your flower or vegetable beds. In retrospect, this may create the very conditions you are trying to avoid since ticks thrive in a moist and cool environment.
Try mulching your leaves this fall to reduce the tick population and improve your lawn and soil for free.
To read more about Jordan’s research on ticks and leaf litter, go to bit.ly/3bdA0vo.
Nadie VanZandt is a UVM Extension master gardener intern.