A Lawn Mower Can Shred Leaves, But Be Careful How Many

Shredded leaves add nutrients to garden beds, and a lawn mower can help you shred those leaves. Just be careful how many leaves you try to mow at once.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: J. Keeler Johnson

Every year, I add compost to my raised garden beds, providing a nutrient boost while replacing soil lost to the annual removal of spent plant root balls. This year, I’m going a step further by working shredded sugar maple leaves into the beds.

They’re a good source of carbon and offer other valuable goodies like calcium and magnesium.

Why You Should Shred Leaves

There are many mature sugar maple trees on my farm, including a quartet of massive specimens that stand alone in the yard. Come autumn it’s not hard to gather a virtually pure collection of sugar maple leaves.

But rather than dump them whole into my garden beds, I wish to shred them first. This speeds up their decomposition and lessens the likelihood of leaves compacting into water-impermeable mats.

A dedicated leaf shredder is a good way to shred leaves. I lack such a machine, though, so I decided to use my riding lawn mower instead. A large volume of leaves had accumulated on the edge of my lawn, at a point where the grass starts growing taller and prevents them from blowing away.

I figured I could drive my lawn mower up and down this area a few times and quickly shred the leaves into small pieces perfect for my garden beds.

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Read more: These 4 steps will  help you get your garden beds ready for winter.

Merits of a Mower

So did my mower shred these leaves well? Yes … and no. To my surprise, the results were mixed.

There’s no doubt my lawn mower is capable of shredding leaves nicely. It’s a garden tractor with a 20-horsepower engine and a 4-foot mower deck raised and lowered by hydraulics.

It’s a quality machine. But it wasn’t ready to deal with the sheer volume of leaves I asked it to tackle.

It’s not a stretch for mature sugar maples to produce more than 100,000 leaves in a year, and when four of those mature trees have dumped all their leaves in a yard … that’s a lot of leaves. Even figuring that some blew away down a nearby slope, the number of leaves caught on the edge of the field had to be substantial, measuring well into the thousands.

Certainly the accumulated area I intended to mow measured 6 inches deep, maybe deeper.

Read more: Consider these 4 types of mowers for your farm needs.

Too Many Leaves!

Therein lay my problem. Even with the mower deck raised to its highest point, and even while creeping forward at a speed barely above zero miles per hour, the lawn mower couldn’t swallow up all the available leaves. As I drove forward, leaves started piling up against the front of the deck … and around the front tires … and on top of the mower deck … and even under the mower deck, where the blades evidently couldn’t chop up leaves fast enough.

Just as my mower deck tried to bottom out on the crazy pile of leaves it had accumulated like a snowplow, I shifted into reverse and gave it a break. My mower had definitely done a good job shredding the leaves that made it to the blades. But it had shot the shredded leaves out the side so they were mixed with unmowed leaves.

This required me to mow the adjacent path while traveling in the opposite direction. Again, the mower deck accumulated leaves like mad and tried to bottom out on a pile of its own creation.

In the end, I did mow a lot of leaves and successfully incorporated them into my garden beds. But it wasn’t nearly as simple as I expected.

I suppose a bagger attachment for the mower deck would have caught the shredded leaves before they mixed with nearby unmowed leaves. But it wouldn’t have stopped the mower deck from trying to bottom out.

The takeaway? A lawn mower can be used as a leaf shredder—but be careful how many leaves you try to shred. Pick a lighter area of your lawn and avoid deep piles of leaves. You don’t want to overwhelm your mower deck and risk damaging your machine.

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