Extension Educator, Horticulture
Autumn leaves are a mixed blessing. Their colors, sounds and smells delight us during walks on clear autumn days. However, if you are overly blessed with leaves, here are a few management options.
Let them lie - Leaves may naturally collect around plants creating a useful mulch. Disadvantages include slick sidewalks from wet leaves and strained neighbor relations when leaves blow into someone else's yard. Deep layers of leaves can kill patches of grass, or can cause a snow mold to develop, requiring grass seeding in the spring.
Aesthetics is another issue. Some people consider unattended leaves as untidy. Although I've never considered a forest untidy.
Shred while mowing - Done on a regular basis, mowing small amounts of leaves and leaving them on the lawn will not harm the grass.
Collect in bagger while mowing - A mixture of leaves and grass makes a wonderful starter for compost or can be used as mulch.
Use as mulch - Leaves as a mulch help to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperatures, reduce weeds and reduce soil erosion around plants. After all, forest trees evolved with mulch around them.
To mulch, apply several thin layers up to a depth of 3-4 inches or shred the leaves before application. Keep mulch six inches away from tree trunks and wait until after a hard frost before applying mulch in the fall.
Compost - Leaves are excellent materials for compost piles. Microbes necessary for composting are present on leaves which eliminates any need for commercial compost starters. Use leaf compost as a substitute for peat moss when planting or add to planting areas. With a little basic information, leaves can be composted without being ugly, smelly, difficult or expensive.
Till into the garden - Shredding leaves first will make tilling easier and the leaves will decompose faster, especially leathery leaves such as oak and sycamore.
Walnut leaves should be shredded and composted first before adding to the garden due to juglone, a substance found in walnut tree parts that can retard growth of other plants. Oak leaves and pine needles can be used without ill effects.
Bag for collection - Check with your city public works office or your local waste hauler.
Here are the details for Champaign and Urbana: The City of Urbana fall leaf collection will begin on Monday October 26 and end on Friday November 27. This collection is available to all Urbana residents and will occur on the regular U-cycle day. In Champaign and Urbana leaves must be placed into 30-gallon paper lawn and garden bags. No plastic bags. No large brush, tree limbs or garbage. For more information, contact the solid waste office at 384-2342. In Champaign call 351-4580.
Only leaves and small twigs collected during leaf raking should be bagged. This does not include Fido's ball, Frisbees, plastic pots or lost shoes.
Take to the Landscape Recycling Center - Landscape materials may also be taken to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 East University Avenue in Urbana (344-5323). Operated by Urbana in cooperation with Champaign and Champaign County, it is open 8am-3:30pm, Monday through Saturday except holidays. There is a nominal fee for disposal and you can pick up some compost while you are there. Call 344-LEAF for more information.
What not to do with leaves
Burn - Burning is illegal in many areas and should be in the others. Besides respiratory problem issues, burning leaves is like burning money. Paper money burns well, but it has more potential than just creating heat and smoke.
Sweep onto the street - Leaves clog storm sewers creating drainage problems. Leaves can create fire hazards from the heat of a car's catalytic converter. In addition it is illegal in many municipalities to deposit raked leaves into the street.