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Natural ‘law of return’ underpins mulch mowing argument


Organic landscape management is about stopping the war with nature and allowing nature to function without unnecessary interference, Chip Osborne, a nationally recognized organic landscaping consultant and horticulturist, told a crowd of about 25 people Monday, Oct. 5 in the Scarsdale Library’s Scott Room. Osborne delivered an informative lecture and PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of mulch mowing leaves.

The Scarsdale Village Leaf Education Task Force is encouraging property owners and landscapers to mulch mow leaves instead of piling them at the curb.

Osborne began his career as a horticulturist in the early 1970s when organic landscape management practices were far less common. After practicing traditional landscape management for around 20 years, he decided to go organic after realizing he was on a proverbial treadmill. “I was killing bugs, killing fungus, and it all just kept coming back,” said Osborne.

Osborne has conducted soil tests in conjunction with Scarsdale’s Department of Parks and Recreation and Conservation every year since 2009. In 2012, the Village of Scarsdale instituted a series of mulch mowing test sites. Mulch mowing proved to be a successful strategy at these sites and, in 2013, mulch mowing became standard for the parks and public properties in the village.

Parks superintendent Jason Marra said at the meeting that mulching saved about $30,000 over two years as compared to traditional landscape management practices.

Osborne emphasized the importance of adopting “best land management practices” and explained that the organic, or holistic, approach to landscape management is based upon the natural law of return.

The law of return refers to the fact that natural ecosystems function cyclically by returning nutrients back to the source. For example, when leaves fall from trees, the leaves ultimately decompose into the soil and provide nutrients back to the trees. “We remove that return when we take away part of that cycle,” said Osborne, referring to traditional leaf management practices. “We don’t need pesticides and fertilizers to have a nice, pristine lawn.”

Osborne is a proponent of a “feed the soil” approach. Traditional landscapers typically adopt a “feed the plant approach.” “Landscape management is all about the soil,” Osborne said. “If we create healthy soil, it will nourish the plants, no artificial or synthetic products necessary.”

After providing this background information, Osborne detailed the major differences between conventional landscape management, which relies on the use of synthetic products and provides short-term benefits, and organic landscape management, which relies on natural processes and provides long-term benefits.

Many of the issues with conventional management strategies lie in the makeup of synthetic fertilizers. Osborne said conventional fertilizers are water soluble, meaning that the product breaks down when it comes into contact with water. This results in short-term effectiveness that requires the property owner to continue buying and reapplying the product.

On the other hand, natural fertilizers are water insoluble and contain nitrogen from natural sources, which allows microbes in the soil to convert nitrogen naturally, creating a sustained benefit for the soil and the ecosystem at large.

Mulched leaves have similar effects to topdressing with compost, another popular organic landscape management practice, but at a lower cost, Osborne said. There is a long list of benefits associated with mulching, including increased organic matter content, increased microbial life, increased pore space (allowing more oxygen into the soil), improved soil structure, as well as saving money and time by cutting out some of the labor and cost involved in traditional landscaping.

One other benefit Osborne pointed out is that widespread adoption of mulch mowing would mean being rid of the din of leaf blowers, a point that was met with applause from some members of the audience. 

Osborne noted that there are some downsides to mulch mowing. For one, it can be a labor intensive process for do-it-yourselfers. Additionally, on properties with an extreme amount of leaves, some leaves will still have to be removed or composted due to the potential imbalance that could be created by mulching too many leaves on one site.

Overall, the benefits of mulch mowing appear to significantly outweigh the negatives. Presentation attendees seemed to agree. “My gardener mulch mows. I actually attended the mulch mowing presentation at New Rochelle High School last year. It’s great, everybody should do it. It’s good for the environment and there is really no downside,” said Carol Silverman.

“I thought the presentation was very informative, I learned a lot about landscaping and about the importance of soil,” said Rosemary Martin. Her husband, Gene Martin, said that he thinks he is going to start mulch mowing on his property. “I do all our landscaping work. I already knew it was important not to remove grass clippings, but now I’m going to start mulching leaves as well. I usually clear out most of the leaves and leave some behind for the nutrients, but now I’ll just mow all of them,” Martin said.

The final slide of Osborne’s presentation contained an inspiring excerpt from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

October 9, 2015