How to take care of those freshly-fallen leaves

I love the oranges, reds, and yellows of autumn. They are beautiful. But, once those colors drop, we are left with quite the thick layer of leaves on the lawn. Since leaves come from a tree, they contain essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. This can be a good thing.

If the leaves are not managed properly, these nutrients can also be a bad thing. Especially since leaves are loaded with phosphorus. If fallen leaves are not managed properly, they can end up in surface water runoff. When that runoff ends up in local waterways, the phosphorus in the leaves can cause algal blooms, lower levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, and kill fish and other aquatic organisms.

To help prevent phosphorus runoff, homeowners should never rake their leaves into the street. Luckily, there are simple leaf options for homeowners.

Homeowners can choose to leave their leaves on the lawns, but if the layer of leaves is thick the leaves can mat down and smother the grass. To prevent this, thick layers of leaves should be raked off. Leaves that aren't too thick can be mowed into fine pieces. These small pieces of leaves will filter through the grass and improve the quality of the soil. Mulching lawn mowers are great for this task.

The leaves can also be collected for compost. Simply pile the leaves and mix in one-third green grass clippings or one third fruit and vegetable food scraps. Make sure the pile is located where the leaves won't wash away. Turning the pile occasionally helps to speed up the decomposition process. Once the pile is decomposed, the compost can be added to the garden, flower beds, or lawn.

If you don't have a good place to compost leaves, you still have a few options. The leaves can be chopped with a mower and spread over gardens. Or, they can be bagged for your local municipal composting operation.

The most important thing to remember with your fallen leaves is to keep them out of waterways. That means not to rake them into the road where they can wash away, or into storm sewers where they can be carried into lakes, rivers, and streams.

Anne Lenox Barlow is the horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. CCE offices may be reached in Clinton County at 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; and Franklin County, 483-7403. E-mail your questions to askMG@cornell.edu.

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