Leaf Litter vs. Groundcovers

Eventually, I need to redesign my small front yard. A large silver maple dominates the space, both in terms of its size and the prevalence of its roots. It is at least 50 years old and is so large in circumference that when I hug it, my fingertips aren’t even close to touching. The grass doesn’t grow well under it and there are so many roots, shrubs and other trees don’t stand a chance.

I’ve been thinking about planting groundcovers instead of the grass but haven’t done anything because I need to figure out how to handle fall leaves. The tree drops more than 20 wheelbarrow loads—yes, I’ve counted—of golden-colored leaves over the course of two weeks, leaves that I scattered about my garden beds to build soil. (If it’s not too wet, I actually enjoy the meditative state one can achieve when raking leaves.) With groundcovers, it’s difficult to rake leaves without damaging the plants and I don’t want to use a noisy leaf blower.

I subscribe to Horticulture magazine’s e-newsletter and this reader question and Horticulture’s answer may help me with my leaf litter dilemma.

Question: At my new home there’s a large population of vinca underneath some deciduous trees. Do I have to gather the tree leaves off of it this fall, or can I leave them to decompose?

Answer: It is best to remove fallen leaves from atop groundcover plants. If the leaves are left there, they can keep things damp, which is just the sort of condition in which diseases like to grow and over-winter.
To remove the leaves without ripping up the plants, gently use a rake or a leaf blower. You can then shred the leaves with the mulching attachment of the leaf blower or by running over the pile with a lawn mower. Blow them or spread them back over the groundcover. They’ll slip down between the plants and decompose to feed the soil—much more quickly and with less risk of disease than whole leaves would.