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What to do with leaves

By JoAnne Skelly

Next time I write about loving all my wonderful cottonwood trees, would someone please remind me why they call it fall?! For weeks, my husband and I have been raking, blowing, mowing, sweeping and moving leaves every day for hours and we are still not done. I laugh when I see neighbors who have one cottonwood tree bagging up their leaves and putting them at the curb with their trash. I’m afraid we would have hundreds of bags, since our leaf pile is currently 5 feet tall, 25 feet deep and 15 feet wide. And, as I already mentioned, the trees aren’t yet done losing their leaves.

When I’m faced with a conundrum, which is a nice way of saying too many dang leaves, I turn to my Extension counterparts in other states to see what they say. Texas A&M University horticulturists have developed a “Don’t Bag It” leaf management plan. They report that 20 percent of solid waste in Texas comes from landscape waste such as leaves and lawn clippings. They call leaves a valuable natural resource that provide organic matter and nutrients for plants and suggest not only hanging on to your leaves, but also collecting your neighbors’.

Their first management tactic is to mow leaves with a mulching mower and let them remain on the lawn. Of course, this only works if there is a light covering of leaves, not the 4-inch deep layers that accumulate on our lawns. They recommend mulching with shredded leaves so that as they decompose, they release important nutrients into the soil. I have tried to mulch with leaves for over 30 years and for the most part the lovely Washoe winds just blow them back on the patio and by the front door, blocking entrances. You also can work leaves directly into the soil, particularly in vegetable gardens, where they improve aeration and drainage.

Composting is another option. I’m a ‘passive’ (make that ‘lazy’) composter. I simply pile up the leaves in one fenced area (so they can’t escape) and wait for nature to water, compress and decompose them. This is a multi-year process. Active composting is a much better approach. This means you mix the brown leaves with green materials such as kitchen waste, lawn clippings or fresh manure, plus a bit of rich soil to supply the microorganisms necessary to facilitate decomposition. Then, you keep the pile moist and turn it periodically for lovely leaf mold next spring.

For detailed information: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/landscape/leaf-management-plan/#:~:text=Leaves%20can%20be%20used%20as,shred%20and%20collect%20the%20leaves.

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at skellyj@unr.edu.