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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Handling Fall Leaves - from David Robson

Posted by John Fulton -

Historically, fall had been leaf-burning time. However, burning leaves is a waste–both environmentally and economically–and regulations prohibit burning leaves in many Illinois communities.

It simply doesn't make sense to waste good, free organic material. There are several better ways to use leaves. If allowed to collect beneath the trees, leaves slowly decompose, releasing their nutrients to nourish the trees. This provides the litter that creates new, rich soil for tender roots.

Where landowners have lawns beneath the trees, accumulated leaves can smother the grass if allowed to build up thicker than several inches. Grinding the leaves with a power mower lets the tiny pieces fall between the blades of grass where the natural benefits can be obtained without harm to the grass. Michigan State University research shows that shredding the leaves actually provides a better soil structure for the turf to grow on. In addition, Purdue University showed that leaves decompose quickly, provided there was some nitrogen to help them break down. Winterizer fertilizers can be used to provide that nutrient.

An added benefit was the return of the nutrients in the leaves as they decompose–particularly phosphorus and potassium. The former encourages plants to develop better root systems, while the latter is used to increase the plant's hardiness and tolerance to stress conditions.

Most mowers come with baffles that can replace the bagging attachment. Mow over the leaves several times, and then switch the baffle with the bagger if you want to use the leaves as mulch or in the compost pile.

Shredded leaves can be dug into the vegetable or flower gardens in fall and will greatly improve the soil for next year. They also can be used to mulch overwintering perennials and roses.

If you have room, a backyard compost pile provides an economical way to dispose of autumn leaves. It can also provide you with a source of organic nutrition for your garden.

Below are a few tips to follow when mowing leaves:

1. Make sure the mower blade is sharp. If not dull before mowing the leaves, it probably will be at the end of the season. A sharp blade pulverizes the leaves into smaller pieces.

2. It is best to make several passes over the leaves. Set the mower up slightly higher for the first pass.

3. Don't mow the grass shorter, no matter what you may have been told years ago. Keep the grass at least 3 to 4 inches high to allow the shredded leaves to fall between the blades.

4. Mow slowly. The longer the leaves are under the mower, the smaller the pieces.

5. Make sure the leaves are dry before mowing. Wet leaves may pack under the mower. On the other hand, dry leaves may be dusty. Consider wearing a mask and/or goggles.

6. Mow often. A couple inches of leaves are easier to mow than 4 or 5.

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