What to do With Fall Leaves?

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Once again, it is that time of year. Farmers toil in the fields, families meander through corn mazes, and neighborhoods prepare for masked and hooded goblins and superheroes. Windows flung open, welcoming the crisp, fresh air of autumn. Everything becomes pumpkin flavored and…*cough, cough*! Oh no! Close the windows! And yes *cough* people start burning leaves.

Though most municipalities ban leaf burning, I live in the county, where burning leaves goes unabated. If you are leaf burner, this column is for you.

Burning leaves is a waste of energy. Locked inside that leaf are nutrients ready to recycle back into the soil. It took nature eons to build that soil and create a system of nutrient cycling. Trees pull that energy from the soil, use it in the process of making leaves, (actually used in all types of plant growth and development), then the leaves fall to the ground, they decompose, and return that energy to the soil. Burning leaves robs the soil of that recycled energy.

So what is a homeowner to do with all these leaves? You can expedite that recycling of energy-rich carbon leaves back into the soil through composting. Compost is incredibly beneficial to soil of all types, especially heavy clay or sandy soils. Hence the term 'black gold'.

To compost leaves, gather them up in whatever way is most suitable. I put the collection bag on the mower and mow my yard collecting leaves along the way.

In a successful compost pile you need carbon and nitrogen, ideally at a ratio of 30:1 respectively. Carbon should be the bulk of your compost pile. Carbon is your fall leaves. Nitrogen is the fuel of the composting process. Sources of nitrogen are lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, or any green living plant material. Some home composters use nitrogen fertilizer.

Air and water are the last two ingredients in a compost pile. The microbes whose job it is to break down the carbon-rich materials use air, water, and nitrogen. By shredding the leaves, you increase the surface area for the microbes to bind to the material. Composting materials should have the feel of a wet sponge. Turn your compost pile at least once a week for the first few months. Should a compost pile begin to smell, there is not enough air. Turning the pile will bring oxygen back into the center of the compost pile.

If composting sounds like too much work, then try my preferred way to handle fall leaves. I gather the leaves using a blower, rake, or mower. Then using a leaf blower, set to reverse, I shred the leaves and use them as mulch in my landscape.

Lesson one in leaf shredding – shred your leaves. Yes, some skip this step and just pile leaves around their plants. Whole leaves mat down trapping excess moisture underneath or not allowing water and air through to the soil. Whole leaves also catch the wind easier and blow around more than shredded leaves.

Lesson two – Your leaf shredding device should have a metal impeller. Many leaf blower/vacuums have plastic impellers, which may break if any small pebbles or sticks accidentally are sucked up.

Lesson three – double shredding significantly reduces the volume of leaves. By running over the leaves with my mower, and then running those shredded leaves through my leaf blower/shredder, I take a pile of leaves the size of a small car to a couple of five-gallon buckets.

Lesson four – If you have recurring foliar disease on your trees don't mulch your leaves. Proper composting can break down those diseases. Also removing the leaves from your property will break the disease cycle.

Lawns benefit from shredded leaves too. Research from Michigan State University shows shredded leaves in the turf adds organic matter and mulches bare patches of soil, blocking potential germinating weed seed. In their research plots at MSU, they had 100% control of dandelion after three years of shredding fall leaves into the lawn.

Some organizations will take your fall leaves, shred them and sell it back to homeowners! I happily relieve my neighbors of their bags of leaves. I even ask our Master Gardeners if they can spare some carbon. I am a bit of a leaf hoarder. Fortunately, it decomposes by the end of the summer, and I'm left leafless, anxiously awaiting autumn.

Hopefully, if you're a leaf burner, I've stayed the lit match in your hand this fall. Every soil benefits from compost, and nearly every yard needs mulch somewhere. Consider the underutilized source of fall leaves to meet your soil's needs.