It’s October and the majority of home gardeners are in the middle of another “leaf season.” Before you head outside with the rake in hand to clean up the latest leaf fall, here are a few time and money saving ideas. Remember that fallen leaves are worth their weight in gold for your landscape and garden. They are full of the nutrients your trees absorbed during the growing season. If you bag leaves for curbside pickup, you’re throwing away free fertilizer.
When leaves fall onto the soil surface, they deter weeds, reduce erosion and soil compaction, improve infiltration of rainfall, prevent surface crusting, moderate soil temperatures and when they decompose, they invigorate the living organisms of the soil, improving nutrient levels, soil structure and drainage.
The simplest way to recycle leaves on the lawn is to simply mow over them. It’s amazing how fast and efficient a mower can be at chopping up leaves so they seem to disappear into the turf. Chopped up leaves ran through the mower will not harm turf and can actually benefit it by mulching thin grassy areas to prevent weeds from sprouting. Numerous university research reports have detailed how leaf mulching affects turf performance. In almost every instance, the results show that chopping up deciduous leaves as part of a regular mowing schedule is an effective means of managing these leaves without harming the turf. Mulching the leaves had no undesirable effects on turf quality or color, growth, thatch accumulation, soil pH, weed populations or disease pressure. While the leaves did not prove to be a substitute for proper nitrogen fertilization practices, the general assessment was that mulching was overall very positive and economical.
A mulching mower works great, but so does a standard mower. Set the front wheels a notch or two higher to allow leaf litter to enter the mower housing. Mulch leaves only when the yard is dry, as wet materials will quickly clog the mower.
Another method of leaf recycling is to collect them for garden mulch. With a mower, blow leaves into windrows for fast, easy collection or, attach a bagger to the mower and partially shred and collect leaves. Mulch flower and vegetable gardens with a 2-inch layer of leaves. Give shrubs and trees 3 to 4 inches of mulch.
A third leaf re-cycling technique is composting. There are numerous approaches to composting including composting in traditional heaps and bins. Washington State University Extension has an excellent publication on how to build a compost pile. Appropriately titled Backyard Composting in the 1990s, you can download a free copy by googling: pubs.wsu.edu and putting the number EB 1784 in the search box or obtain a hard copy by calling the Publication Department at WSU at 1-800-723-1763 and asking for Extension Bulletin 1784. The cost for the printed copy is $1 plus tax and postage.
This column is printed as a service of the Washington State University Extension Office at Elma. Donald D. Tapio is the regional gardening and farming specialist for Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. He can be reached at (360) 482-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.