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What do you do with all those fallen leaves?

The autumn leaves call for choices. Raking them can be a chore for tired homeowners who would rather do something else on the weekend. Raking leaves can be fun with children: As proof I have pictures of little Alice with cousin Elizabeth jumping in the piles. Raked leaves can be collected at the curb, at a cost to your city or village. (Only some towns compost them). Raked leaves can help your plants and improve your soil if you figure out how to use them. Or you may not have to rake them at all.

Here are 10 ways to use leaves:

1. Do nothing.
Many ancient trees surround my old farmhouse and I almost never have to rake any of them. First, it’s very windy here so they just blow away – fortunately into a field and gully to the east of the property. (Do consider your neighbor if you’re just letting them blow.) Second, even without the wind, I could get away with doing nothing because most of my large trees have relatively small leaves (Chinese elms, black locusts, ashes, willows, poplars). The leaves decompose quickly and add organic matter to the soil. That’s a good thing.
When must you rake? If you leave a thick layer of leaves on your lawn, especially large ones, they will block the sunlight and encourage turf grass fungus diseases. Chop them up or rake them off – for better uses!

2. Mow the leaves and the lawn one more time.
Recommended lawn care practices include a late-season mowing. Some guides advise setting the blades to cut the grass shorter than usual, to increase air circulation and discourage fungus diseases. If your leaves are small or medium-sized, just chop them up and let them lie. (A few large leaves such as oak or catalpa might clog up the mower blades.) Just like the grass clippings, chopped leaves decompose quickly and add valuable organic matter with nutrients to the soil. Clippings add nutrients and reduce the need for fertilizers. If you see thick clumps of grass or leaves, just pick them up or spread them out before the snow flies.

3. Rake them over the roots of landscape plants.
In the woods nobody is raking the leaves off the tree roots. Over time they decompose and contribute to the wonderful material that forms the forest floor, called “humus.” It’s the ideal form of compost, perfectly suited to serve those trees. The best thing you can do for your trees and shrubs is to cover their roots with their own decomposing leaves. Experts in native plant culture and soil life explain that the “community of microorganisms” that evolve in naturally composted plant material are exactly right for the needs of those plants. It’s locally made compost for local plants. So let your tree’s leaves do what they are meant to do.

4. Mulch the flower beds.
Mulch is good for blocking weeds, retaining soil moisture, and protecting plant roots from rapid temperature changes that can cause heaving or drying out. Your leaves – preferably chopped or small – will be great mulch for all gardens. For now just gather them in piles, carts or bags near the beds. I do not recommend mulching around the crowns of plants until the ground has frozen because it can encourage fungal growth or invite rodents to nest (and munch) there. Once the ground freezes, spread the leaves around the plants up to 3 inches thick.

5. Make a pile and leave it alone.
A large leaf pile is a basic compost pile. Put it wherever it won’t bother anyone, the bigger the better. It won’t smell or attract rats or cause any problems. You can cover it with a tarp or just let it sit. Feel under the pile in a few months and you might feel heat – even in winter – as the decomposition happens. Gardeners are often proud to show pictures of their steaming compost piles in a snowy yard. A smart move is to make this pile where you would like to have a new garden bed next season.

6. Bag and store them.
If you aren’t ready to use them yet, gather the leaves in sturdy garbage bags and hide them behind the garage. Poke a few holes in them for aeration or they might get soggy and smelly by spring. Inside the bags decomposition will happen and you will have compost or semi-decomposed material to turn into the soil. Some folks pile the bagged leaves around a drafty foundation.

7. Make a pile and cage it.
Use chicken wire or pallets or boards to enclose your heap of leaves – a temporary kind of compost. Decomposition works best in a compost bin at least 4-by-4-by-4 feet. The bigger the better.

8. Begin full scale composting.
Composting is satisfying and so good for your garden and the eco-system. Once you decide to make a permanent compost you’ll have many choices. Learn about them (and I promise to write about it soon). You can build compost bins from skids (pallets), or wooden frames with screening stapled on, or boards. You can make great compost from yard material, food scraps (not meat or fats), shredded paper, manures, and coffee grounds – without smelling or attracting wildlife if you do it right. But not everybody understands that. Check out the rules in your village or city before you start.

9. Sheet compost the garden.
If you have uncovered soil, as in a vegetable or annuals garden or a raised bed, do sheet composting. Spread the leaves (the large ones chopped) many inches thick over the area. You will smother most weeds and add organic matter to your soil. Turn it under in the spring, or you might plant directly into it. I like to cover a sheet-composted bed with a solid tarp so that decomposition happens even faster.

10. Out to the street.
If you simply can’t do any of the above, raking the leaves to the street is the last resort. Especially if you chop them first, some savvy gardener might even cart them away before the highway department gets there.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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