Garden Variety: Multiple ways to clear lawn, recycle autumn leaves
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Deciduous trees put on a glorious show of color this fall in the Midwest, but now they are fading and dropping their leaves in their final preparation for the arrival of winter. As welcome of a sight as the fallen leaves are for some, they can also be a hassle when it comes to maintaining the safety of sidewalks and storm drains or for those who desire manicured lawns and gardens. Here’s how to put those extra leaves to good use if you have them.
The easiest way to get rid of extra leaves is to mow over them. If they are on a sidewalk, driveway or other undesirable location, use a leaf rake or blower to move them onto the lawn. Then, mow over the lot. Use a mulching blade on the mower if you have one. Chopped leaves should fall between the blades of grass. There, they break down, return vital nutrients to the soil and improve soil texture. Think of them as free fertilizer and soil conditioner.
A 2010 study by Michigan State University suggests that mulched/mowed leaves can also reduce the number of dandelions in the lawn. The belief is that the additional nutrients and soil improvement help lawns outcompete dandelions and other weeds.
If mowing leaves to keep the excess at bay, remember to do it frequently throughout the fall and early winter. A heavy layer of leaves over the lawn can block light from reaching grass, causing a detrimental effect rather than the intended positive one.
The second option for dealing with excess leaves is to use them as mulch. Collect them by raking them onto a tarp. Then use a chipper shredder to chop them. Or, use a mower with a bag and collect the chopped leaves from the bag. Spread chopped leaves in an even layer over the vegetable garden, landscape beds or around the base of trees like you would with any other mulch. Chopped leaves can also be piled around the base of plants that need extra winter protection such as hybrid tea roses, but wait until after a hard freeze to do that to avoid confusing the plant.
The third option for dealing with excess leaves is to compost them. Mix them into a compost pile or bin and mix with green material to speed the composting process. Green material includes items such as recently pulled weeds, annual flowers and vegetable plants that have succumbed to frost, and plant-based kitchen scraps.
If home composting is impractical or inaccessible, excess leaves can be contributed to a community compost pile. Lawrence residents are fortunate to have the option of curbside yard waste collection. Yard waste can also be dropped off at the city’s Compost Facility, at 1420 E. 11th St., from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays for a fee of $5 per load. Yard waste is recycled at this facility and the finished products are available for free for area residents.
Whatever you end up doing with excess leaves, remember to take a lesson from nature. In forests, fallen leaves create an insulating blanket over the ground, protecting plants and plant roots by reducing temperature and moisture fluctuations. Over time, the leaves break down and release vital nutrients back into the soil, creating a self-sustaining cycle. If you dig in the forest, you will find layers of increasingly fine organic matter, sometimes referred to as humus. Forest soils are a far cry from the heavy clay and compacted soils often found in urban and suburban yards. Re-creating them may take more than a lifetime, but we can grow healthier plants in our yards by allowing some of nature’s own processes to happen.
The word deciduous refers to trees and shrubs that shed their leaves annually. The opposite of this, trees and shrubs that retain leaves year-round, are referred to as evergreen. Sometimes people refer to deciduous trees as broadleaf or hardwood, but use those labels with caution. Some exceptions include southern magnolia, which is a broadleaved evergreen; gingko, which is a deciduous softwood species; and baldcypress, which is a deciduous needled softwood.
• Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.