As summer draws to a close and autumn begins, it’s important to plan for the inevitable fall cleanup. Removing leaf litter is the most obvious task, but there’s much more involved to truly care for your property and get the best out of trees and gardens when spring finally arrives. Some experts even argue that leaves should remain right where they land.
“The fall is always a time to evaluate a garden,” said Frederico Azevedo, founder of Unlimited Earth Care in Bridgehampton. In business for 22 years on the East End of LI, Azevedo explained that the cooler weather makes it easier to evaluate and repair problems from the previous season. When summer is over, he said it’s time to see where grass is weak, where weeds proliferated and to note the effectiveness of irrigation and drainage.
“It’s the best time to reseed the grass,” Azevedo said, pointing out that grass seed would have to compete with weeds if planted in the spring. The cool air and shorter days make it easier for everything to grow, so along with seeding grass, fall is the best time to safely transplant shrubs and trees, and reorganize perennial gardens. “It’s a very busy time of year.”
Azevedo said he often spreads compost around the weaker looking trees and prunes dead or dying branches so trees thrive the following year. “When it comes next spring, you’re all set,” he said, describing the benefit of proper fall cleanup and maintenance. Azevedo explained that raking leaves—perhaps the most common fall cleanup job—is not done for aesthetic reasons alone. Dead leaves can damage the grass and they provide a perfect nesting place for insects during the cooler months. “You have to be very careful with that,” he said, recalling that the warm winter of 2011/2012 led to many more bugs. “After the winter, you see the consequences,” Azevedo said, stressing the import of proper fall cleanup and maintenance.
International Society of Aboriculture (ISA) Board Certified Master Arborist and owner of CW Arborists in East Hampton, Mike Gaines said safety is always his main concern when dealing with trees, followed by health, functionality and aesthetics.
Gaines said fall is a good time to look over trees and address any issues, such as large cavities, broken limbs, cracks along the sides of trees or mushrooms on or around a specimen. “These would be good reasons to call,” he said. “It’s also a good time to plan for the following season, while the pet peeves are still current in [homeowners’] minds.”
A proper inspection will keep trees safe and healthy, so finding a qualified arborist, or tree expert, is of paramount importance. “Always interview your arborist, get to know them. A few minutes of diligence can eliminate a lot of regret and build a lifetime friendship—a great benefit to the trees,” Gaines said.
Despite the popularity of raking leaves in the fall, Gaines said trees benefit from decaying leaf matter. “The larger the area you retain around a specific tree to allow the leaves to collect and decompose naturally, the better,” he said. “Leave the leaves.”
Gaines noted that dead leaves are part of nature’s cycle and order. “Manicured lawns and grass are likely one of the most consistent no-point pollution generators of all time. The installation of lawns and landscapes along with their high levels of maintenance kills trees,” he said. “I have seen many a great specimen fall lifetimes before their due time.”
Gaines said bugs are also good for trees, outside of a few rare species. “Pest insects and disease are more often a sign that the situation is getting bad for the trees, not the reason.”
Though he promotes year-round tree care, Gaines said he deals with problems in a “worst thing’s first” order. He said water management is important to keep the area around trees from becoming saturated, and nutrition, structural repair and soil structure should also be considered as needed. During this busy landscaping season, “Sometimes there is no greater good to be done aside from protecting a tree from landscapers, landscape architects, irrigation guys, contractors, overly zealous homeowners and the like,” Gaines explained.
Citing possible death and injury from falling branches as consequences of failing trees, the arborist stressed the value of coordinating fall landscape care, management and cleanup with proper tree care. “If you do not use qualified, trained individuals and dedicated companies, you can be removing trees that aren’t necessary, killing your trees with over-pruning and general over-caring. Not to mention adding to no-point pollution, squandering money on failing trees and in general wasting your time.”
Joseph Raso of Joseph Raso Landscaping in Glen Cove agreed that most trees do better with leaves left around them, but added, “You can do it neat, in beds.” Along with raking leaves, cleaning gutters and seeding, Raso said thatching and aerating the lawn “gets all the dead out” and ensures better growth next season. He also noted that spreading lime to balance soil pH reduces weeds and creates “stronger, greener, healthier” grass. “If the soil is not right, you’re never going to have a good lawn.”