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Gardening Rookie: Drowning in Leaves

11/10/2009 11:17:50 AM

Tags: fall, leaves, raking, mowing, compost, mulch, trees, burning leaves, playing in leaves

Help me! My yard has been overtaken by leaves—big leaves, small leaves, brown leaves, red leaves—and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to dig myself out. 

I’m feeling more than a bit overwhelmed by the leaf takeover at my house, and I know I’m not alone. What’s a green gardener to do to keep all those leaves in order?

You could just not rake the leaves and hope they’ll blow away.

autumn leaves
They may look lovely, but an abundance of leaves left on the lawn all winter can kill your grass. Mow over the leaves and spread them across the yard so your lawn can reap the benefits of decomposing leaves’ nutrients. Photo by mksfly/Courtesy Flickr. 

But if you’re like me and you live in an area where your neighbors keep their leaves cleaned up each fall, you might not want to leave them lying around. Plus, leaves can be slippery and dangerous if they collect on sidewalks and in streets. And thick leaves left on the grass all winter can actually harm your yard rather than helping it—trust me, you won’t be pleased if you discover your lawn is dead come spring.

Still, you don’t have to haul your leaves away to the dump. Why would you want to when those leaves are a great source of nutrients for your soil?

The trick is knowing how to take advantage of them.

Depending on how many leaves have fallen, you may be able to simply mow over the leaves. Once they’re chopped up by your mower and spread over the lawn, they likely won’t be an eyesore and can get to work decomposing and sharing their rich nutrients with your soil.

If you have too many leaves to simply mow over them and leave them there, however, there are two great ways to put them to work.

One easy option is to make mulch. Create an enclosure with wire mesh and stakes, and once you’ve raked up your leaves, toss them in the enclosure. This ensures they won’t blow away, and by spring, you’ll have a terrific mulch to layer on the yard and around plants. Or, if you don’t want to make a mesh enclosure, you can simply fill giant yard bags with shredded leaves and stash them in the garage until spring—either way, you’ll end up with the mulch of your dreams. (What? You don’t dream about mulch?)

While you’re at it, use some of those dried leave to improve your compost. I keep a big yard bag full of chopped leaves handy and add handfuls of the leaves to my compost bin here and there—it’s a great “dry” ingredient to keep my kitchen compost from getting too wet over the winter.

Then again, maybe it’s not going to work out for you to make mulch or compost this year. If that’s the case, before you toss those bags of leaves in the dump, check around to see if your community has a yard-waste collection program for composting, so others can benefit from your leaves even if you can’t.

Now, I know some folks still rely on burning to get rid of the leaves. But I don’t burn leaves. For one thing, I can’t because I live in town and there’s a burn ban in place. But, more importantly, burned leaves release pollutants that can irritate the respiratory system. And burning too close to your house can be downright dangerous.

Oh, and one more thing to consider before you finish your fall cleanup: go ahead and jump in a pile of leaves. Really. Do it. For a few precious minutes, you can pretend you’re a kid again. Trust me, it’s worth it.

pile of leaves
After you rake your leaves, save them outdoors or in bags until next spring, when the resulting leaf mold makes the perfect mulch. Photo by shareski/Courtesy Flickr. 



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