Fallen leaves are great for lawns, mulch, compost

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Fall leaves

By Kellie Docherty

Cool weather, pumpkin spice lattes and haunted houses are a sign that fall is back again. Though there are many things to enjoy about fall, we are usually reminded of a dreaded seasonal chore: cleaning up leaves. 

We spend hours raking, bagging and shipping away the leaves. We’ve grown used to this fall ritual, not knowing the benefits those fallen leaves could provide us. Before you start bagging, try switching up your methods to make those leaves work for you. Here are three ways leaves can benefit you. 

Lawn fertilizer

Many of us spend money on fertilizer when the leaves we get every fall from the trees are essentially “free fertilizer.” This brings me to the first way you can use those leaves for your benefit. Instead of bagging them up, use your mower to mulch them, ideally about once a week. 

This can be achieved by setting your mower blade to the highest setting and passing over the leaves in your yard 1-2 times. The small leaf bits will then nestle in-between the turfgrass and break down over winter. When the mulched leaf litter decomposes, it fertilizes the soil by providing much-needed nutrients. This can result in a greener lawn in the spring. 

Studies have also shown that mulching lawns can significantly reduce dandelions in the spring. I can speak from experience to this because for three years we’ve been mulching leaves in my yard and have had little to no dandelions. 

Mulching leaves is not just great for your lawn but for your wallet too, due to spending less on fertilizer and weed killer. 

Garden mulch

If you have multiple trees, leaving you with too much leaf mulch to be used in your yard, this second method is a great option. Mulching leaves isn’t just for the lawn, but it can be a wonderful addition to flower and garden beds, benefitting you and wildlife. 

A few inches of leaf mulch in your garden bed will add nutrients to the soil and attract important insects that will help break down leaf litter, supporting microbes in your soil. Before you know it, you’ll have a rich soil profile for your plants. Just like your lawn, leaf mulch reduces weeds in your flower beds. This can result in spending less time weeding your garden bed. 

Leaf mulch also provides critical habitat for our pollinators like fireflies, moths, bees and many others who use leaf litter for protection and to overwinter in. Sending away leaf litter can reduce habitat and potentially remove pollinator larvae. 

Compost

A third use for leaf mulch is adding it to your compost. When composting, it’s important to have a 1:1 ratio of greens and browns. 

Greens would include fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and grass clippings. Adding leaves to your compost will help balance out that ratio by providing the “browns.” Having a balanced mix of greens and browns in your compost can help improve the overall soil quality of your compost. 

Remove

If none of these options are possible and you must bag your leaves and remove them, be sure to use paper bags. Knowing when to curb your leaves is also important. It’s best to put leaves on the curb when it is not windy or rainy. Poor weather conditions can result in leaves ending up in our storm drains, resulting in flooding due to clogged storm drains. 

Remember, what enters your storm drains ends up in streams. Excess leaves in streams can cause nutrient overload, flooding, and erosion issues. 

No matter what your fall rituals are, if you have leaves falling on your lawn, consider making the switch to a more earth and wallet-friendly technique. Instead of working to remove them, have them work for you by adding mulched leaves to your lawn, garden and compost.

(Kellie Docherty is the education coordinator with Medina Soil and Water Conservation District. To contact the district, call 330-722-9322.)

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