The annual deluge of leaves has begun, a sure sign that fall has fallen upon us and winter is arriving. As we begin another “leaf season,” I’d like to offer a horticultural perspective on those leaves scattering across the yard. Before you head outside with rake in hand, let me suggest a few time- and money-saving ideas I think you’ll find very useful.
How about if we start with a TV informercial approach:
• Tired of long hours behind a rake cleaning up after messy trees when you’d rather be inside watching sports or the latest Christmas movie?
• Looking for a fast, easy way to remove fallen leaves without the fuss of raking and bagging?
• Want to save $$$ on fertilizer, trash bags and “store-bought” mulches?
• Interested in an organic, 100% natural plant fertilizer that’s absolutely free! Yes, you heard it right ... free!
• Want to be part of a national trend in lawn care sweeping the country?
Then look no further. The latest (and oldest) innovation in fall landscape cleanup is available now. I’m not talking about a new product, but of a not-so-new way to recycle landscape wastes at home and turn trash to treasure while saving time and money.
First, a few facts on fallen leaves. Approximately 75% of the nutrients a tree takes up during the season are stored in its leaves. When you fertilize your landscape, a portion of that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the three numbers on fertilizer bag — is used to make leaves. But in addition to the big three, that tree is taking up calcium, magnesium, sulfur and micronutrients such as iron, manganese, boron, molybdenum, copper, zinc, chlorine and others from the soil.
These nutrients are taken up in varying amounts as the plant needs them to build plant cells and structures, process carbohydrates and a host of other critical functions. In many ways, leaves are the perfect fertilizer, since their nutrient ratios are very close to what plants need to grow, with the exception of nitrogen, which tends to not stick around long.
Those leaves on your lawn are a natural, organic source of nutrients for your landscape, with a more complete blend than you’ll ever purchase in a bag. If you bag leaves and grass clippings for curbside pickup, you’re just “renting” the fertilizer you applied this year and also giving away nutrients from your soil to be hauled away.
In natural settings like forests and meadows, we see the leaf cycle operating in a wonderful, plant-enhancing system. Leaves drop and collect as mulch, protecting soil from crusting, erosion, temperature extremes, drying out and compaction. In time they decompose, slowly releasing their nutrients to growing plants.
No one fertilizes or mulches the forest. No one bags it, either. You can put this natural cycle to work for you in your home lawn and landscape.
The simplest way to recycle a light sprinkling of leaves is to mow over them with a mulching mower that will chop them up to drop down into the turf and decompose over time. Mulching a scattering of leaves will not harm turf and may even help block some of the sunlight needed by weed seeds. I generally set the front wheels a notch or two higher to allow leaf litter to enter the mower housing. Mulching works best when leaves are dry.
Collect leaves for mulching
Another method of leaf recycling is to collect them and use them for mulch. Hand raking is good exercise for that new year’s resolution you made, but there are easier ways. Your standard-type mower can be used to blow them into wind rows for fast, easy collection. Or a bagging mower can be used to partially shred and collect leaves. A tarp makes it easy to gather and transport shredded leaves to the flower, vegetable and shrub beds around the landscape, and eliminates the need for bagging!
Mulch flower and vegetable beds about 2-3 inches deep, and shrubs and trees 3-4 inches deep. If you have any extra leaves left over, save them to replenish mulched areas when the weather heats up in summer. Shredding reduces the volume significantly so you can store more in a bag or circular wire bin.
A third leaf-recycling technique is composting. There are several approaches to composting, including sheet composting (mixing shredded leaves into the soil at least 4-6 weeks prior to planting) and composting in traditional heaps and bins. For more info on composting, check out my Composting for Kids section on the Aggie Horticulture website here.
Whatever method you choose, put your leaves to work for you this season by turning them into free, organic mulch, and slow-release fertilizer the way nature was designed to work.