NWF’s terrible, no-good gardening advice goes viral

Somehow, the National Wildlife Federation’s 2014 blog post “Leave the Leaves for Wildlife” has gone viral this year, and not just on the Internet. Its popular chore-relieving advice is being repeated widely on television, too.

Unfortunately, this part of the NWF’s advice hasn’t gone viral – the qualifier:

A leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow. The leaf layer is its own mini ecosystem!  (Emphasis certainly not in the original.)

So the leaf-leaving advice is about woodlands, not gardens, and certainly not lawn. And notice that the photo illustrating the post shows disembodied, out-of-context leaves, not a garden. Yet the original story ends with this misdirect:

Remember, the less time you have to spend doing the back-breaking work of raking up your leaves, the more time you have to enjoy the gorgeous fall weather outside and the wildlife visiting your garden!

And the misdirect worked, turning this forest management advice into really bad gardening advice. 

Womensday, like the Weather Channel and many other sites, repeated the NWF’s statements about benefits to wildlife and promise of less work, with no mention of the fact that this advice applies to natural areas, not actual yards. The stock photos complete the misdirect that turns the story into bad gardening advice.

Above, another example, from Upworthy. Also spreading bad advice? Science Daily.

Yet! I found some news organizations that did some actual reporting.

An NBC affiliate in Texas asked someone local who knows something about gardening, a landscaping company owner:

East Texas’ Wilhite Landscaping owner James Wilhite said lawns should still be kept up, though.”Leaves are a very important part of our ecosystem and it’s got a place in the forest and you may have a natural area in your yard where you’d like to set up habitat,” says owner James Wilhite. “In the middle of your lawn may not be the best place for habitat for wildlife.”

Tech Times added an important caveat:

  1. Let them stay where they fall. The lawn probably would not mind if one chops the leaves using a mulching mower.

Fox in Minneapolis illustrated the story with video of people mulch-mowing their lawns and wisely mentioned fungus from too many leaves on lawn, and neighbors who may not approve of the no-raking look.

A writer for Huffington Post did an excellent job:

But admittedly, a very thick layer of dead leaves under certain conditions could harm your lawn — especially if they’ll be covered with snow all winter. Luckily, there are alternatives that are still much more environmentally friendly than chucking them in the landfill.

For one, you can turn the leaves into mulch by shredding them with a lawn mower until they’ve been chopped down into dime-size pieces and you can see the grass through them. The smaller pieces can break down more quickly, and evidence suggests they’ll help return nutrients to the soil and can even help prevent weed growth.

And the smart people at Detroit News knew enough to consult an expert!

Rebecca Finneran, a horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension, sees mulching as the way to go. Grinding up the leaves via a mower and letting the remains stay on the ground allows for the benefits of fertilization, without the dead spots in a lawn that might occur if leaves sit in place all winter.

“You pulverize the leaves into little tiny pieces,” she said. “They sift down around the turf plants and provide nutrients … It ends up being very beneficial to lawns.”

When leaves are allowed to sit during an extended period of time in the winter, they create problems for owners to deal with in the spring.

“They don’t kill the lawn, but they tend to smother patches of it out,” Finneran said.

Another strike against the Wildlife Fund’s recommendation: Heavy, wet leaves can clog storm drains, which can lead to backups and flooding. Many municipalities ask residents to help keep drains clear of leaves in the fall.

For more information on mulching, MSU Extension offers a variety of tips.

The lesson here may be that gardeners should be wary of gardening advice from experts in something other than gardening. The author of the NWF blog post is, after all, “a naturalist, author, blogger and national media personality with National Wildlife Federation.”

More news outlets should be wary, too, and maybe next time hire an actual garden writer to do the story.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on November 13, 2015 at 9:23 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Everybody’s a Critic.

Comment List

  • Dave 28 / 05 / 2016

    Yep. This issue has been my personal red Starbucks cup. Thanks for posting this!

  • Laura Munoz 05 / 08 / 2016

    Gosh, I’ve been using leaves in my garden for years without problems including leaves that people say don’t break down quickly. As you mentioned, I’ve used them as mulch to keep the weeds out of my perennial beds and to protect those tender perennials in cold winters. I’ve used them in the compost pile. I’ve also raked them around the smaller under-story trees to provide nutrients. I grab the bags of leaves that everyone puts by the curb whenever the opportunity presents itself.

  • Julie 17 / 10 / 2016

    In the wake of this, the concept of mulching your leaves gained some attention, which I love. There is even a study that mulching your leaves significantly reduces dandelions. An article on the dandelions was published in my local Extension newsletter, I have requested a link since my internet search didn’t find it.

  • Marilyn Carothers 21 / 10 / 2016

    This matter gardener agrees. Leaves can go in the garden all mulched up, but don’t leave them in any thickness on the lawn. Yes tiny bits are great, just not in any thickness.

  • Tim Hewett 24 / 10 / 2016

    Really bad advice for lawn, ponds or flower beds. In my small woodland area I don’t clear leaves but everywhere else clear them up. However do not burn or landfill them leaf compost is easy if slow and very good for the garden.

  • Dale Hendricks 14 / 11 / 2016

    Many of the trees we like to grow evolved in the woods/forests where leaves are left to rot- and soils in such habitats are often more fungus rich. For healthy trees a food source for these preferred soil biota buddies- the fungus’- is needed.
    So yes leaves are usually good for trees and often not the best- especially too thick- for turf.

  • Mike the Gardener 18 / 11 / 2016

    I am fortunate to have a lot of trees in my area and am able to grab as many as I need. Although I like to shred them up first to get the process of breaking down going. Leaves are great to add to any garden.

  • connie kuramoto 20 / 11 / 2016

    Leaving the leaves under shrubs and in vegetable and flower beds helps drought proof your garden and build good soil. It creates excellent habitat for beneficial insects. . Get rid of your lawn. Lawns are a waste of space. Grow food or native plants instead. I have been teaching Horticulture for over thirty years and I think this is great advise not bad advise. Leaving soil bare to the elements is bad advise.

  • Sandy 20 / 11 / 2016

    Yes!!

  • admin 21 / 11 / 2016

    Leaving a pile on your lawn is not a good idea for all the reasons you pointed out. You mention Michigan State University. They did an extensive study on the benifits of mulching lawn leaves to reduce dandelions and green up the lawn in the spring. Some specifics can be found here: http://thefarmgardenblog.com/2015/11/07/mulching-leaves-reduces-dandelions-in-lawns/ But mulching is the key word. Thanks for looking at this with a critical eye.

  • marcia 21 / 11 / 2016

    Hey Susan,

  • John Hric 21 / 11 / 2016

    I left the leaves where they fell. Into my compost pile. Like they have fallen for many a year. After I have raked them. What is so back breaking about raking? I particularly enjoyed the conflicting comments – about insects over wintering in the leaves ( somewhat true ) and the shred the leaves and mulch the grass (oops were there overwintering insects in those leaves ? ! ? ! ) GRASS the 5 letter version of the 4 letter word LAWN. Don’t have one. There is a small area of mixed naturally diversified plants that makes excellent pathways between the garden beds. However it is not and never will be a LAWN. And before being trimmed to the winter height it does a fair job of capturing leaves prior to raking. There was one good point to the article – leaves can be good. Keep them and use them.

  • Bev Wagar 21 / 11 / 2016

    This is a classic example of narrow-minded, literalist, black-or-white thinking.

  • Laura Munoz 22 / 11 / 2016

    No, no, no, Bev! Don’t encourage people to keep their leaves. If everyone keeps their leaves, I won’t have enough for my new garden. They are MINE, MINE, MINE! (Insert crazy, maniacal laugh here.)

  • Christopher C NC 22 / 11 / 2016

    The forest most certainly DOES NOT have a leaf layer several inches thick. They are all down now. I doubt it is even half an inch thick. There may be a humus layer two inches thick at best if you are lucky.

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