Leave the Leaves

Leaves across Northwest Ohio are near peak fall color. The brilliant shades of yellow, red, and orange will vanish over the next few weeks as leaves drop to the ground. One question often asked this time of year is “What should I do with all these leaves?”. As you might guess, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends. Homeowners have many options for dealing with fallen leaves including mowing, mulching, composting – and just letting them be.

What happens when trees lose their leaves in a forest or a natural area? Fallen leaves generally form a carpet of sorts on the ground, keeping the soil moist and of moderate temperature. This in turn allows living organisms like animals and fungi to thrive. In fact, leaves provide winter protection for countless animals including butterflies and moths, beetles, spiders, among others.

Deciduous tree leaves are an excellent source of organic matter and fertilizer. Over time, decomposing leaves provide a slow release of nutrients, roughly 2% nitrogen, which can be used by plants for growth.

If you have turfgrass, mowing is a good option when the lawn is covered by a light layer of leaves. A lawn mower can quickly reduce fallen leaves into smaller leaf fragments that break down quickly. Mowing also eliminates wet, matted piles of whole leaves that can prevent grass from growing in the future.

One word of caution – rake and remove leaves from trees that have certain foliar diseases such as tubakia leaf spot on oak, tar spot on maple, or guignardia on buckeye.  Leaving diseased leaves in the landscape will keep the fungi around to possibly infect trees again next year.

Mulching can reduce large amounts of leaves in your yard. Leaves can be mulched and collected in a leaf bag attached to a mower or by using a leaf shredder. Applying several inches of leaf litter mulch to landscape or garden beds will help conserve moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and reduce weed growth.

Whole or mulched leaves can also be incorporated into the soil with a tiller to increase organic matter and improve soil texture, aeration, and drainage. Leaves can be broken down along with other yard wastes into compost. The composting process reduces these wastes into a nutrient-rich organic material that can be used in containers, gardens, and flower beds.

Finally, you can simply leave the leaves. Leaf piles provide ample winter cover for a wide variety of insects and spiders – and eventually add organic matter, nutrients, and improve soil health as they break down. What will you do with your leaves this year?

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