University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson,
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone & Winnebago Counties

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Recycling Leaves in the Yard

Autumn is a wonderful season until it's time to rake leaves. This year, recycle your leaves at home rather than burning or sending them to a municipal compost site. Burning pollutes the air and makes breathing difficult for people with respiratory disorders. Instead of sending leaves to a commercial or municipal compost facility and then buying them back as compost next year, reap the benefits directly by using your own leaves in a variety of ways.

In heavily wooded areas with native stands of trees, let the leaves lie as they fall. The trees need the natural leaf litter. Leaves enrich the soil’s nutrients and quality for maximum root growth. However, if you have lawn beneath the trees, the leaves must be removed or the grass may be smothered.

As you clean up the garden in fall, till or dig leaves into vegetable and annual flowerbeds to improve the soil’s quality and tilth.

Shredded or chopped leaves make wonderful mulch around trees, shrubs and perennials. Leaf mulch is an attractive dark brown and slowly decomposes releasing nutrients to the plants. Prevent matting by shredding or chopping leaves. A lawn mower with a bag attached is an easy way to chop and pick up leaves simultaneously. After the soil freezes in late November insulate roses and perennials with crinkly dry leaves instead of straw.

Oak leaves do not make soils in northern Illinois too acidic and may be chopped and used as mulch or tilled into gardens.
In addition to falling leaves, vegetable and bedding plants are dying and beginning to decompose as the growing season draws to a close. Now is the ideal time to start a backyard compost pile. It is easy, economical and does not smell.

Backyard composting offers more than just a way to get rid of plant material. Compost is an excellent way to improve yard and garden soil, especially the clay soil dominant in our area. Adding organic matter such as compost loosens clay soils, improves drainage and slowly releases nutrients. In sandy soil, compost holds moisture longer and provides nutrients.

By following a few simple rules your compost project will be successful. Start by constructing some type of bin to hold the materials. Bins may be as simple as poultrywire cylinders held up with a few stakes or as elaborate as specially constructed wood and wire bin systems. Piles need to be a minimum of 3 by 3 by 3 feet for best decomposition. Bins must be constructed so air can reach the composting materials.

All organic matter eventually decomposes, but mixing green and brown materials together in a ratio of half green and half brown will speed the process. Green materials, such as grass clippings or fresh green plant parts, supply nitrogen. Brown materials, such as dead leaves and plants, are high in carbon. Mixing the two assures good conditions for the microbes and fungi that actually decompose the plant material.

The smaller the plant materials are, the faster they will decompose. Shred, chop, or mow before putting them in the bin.

Moisture and air are required for the composting process, but too much or too little of either one can cause problems. Compost materials should be about the wetness of a wrung-out sponge. Anaerobic bacteria dominate wet compost piles and create bad odors. The solution is to add air by turning or mixing the pile. If too dry, the materials will decay extremely slowly. Keeping the pile covered is one way to control moisture levels.

Turning every week or two mixes the materials, speeds decomposition and is a good way to monitor progress. Finished compost is well worth the small amount of effort. For more information contact your local University of Illinois Extension office.

October - November 2000: Recycling Leaves in the Yard | Fall Garden Wrap-Up Checklist | Preparing Lawns for Winter | Pumpkins and Cranberries

Past Issues

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