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Uses for fall leaves

As the summer gives way to fall, our thoughts turn to cooler days and fall colors.

However, once the color fades the leaves begin to fall, and there can be many of them. I feel like there were more this year than ever. A mature tree can have as many as a quarter of a million leaves on its branches. Most homes, of course, have more than one tree so the number of leaves falling to the ground can quickly reach a million or more. Here are four environmentally friendly uses for these leaves.

1. Leaves that fall on your yard can be broken up with a lawn mower and recycled directly into the lawn. A mulching lawn mower blade works best, but a regular lawnmower blade also will get the job done. Depending on the type and amount of leaves, several passes with the mower may be necessary. Once the leaves have been processed by the lawn mower, they will quickly break down.

2. Till the leaves directly into vegetable gardens or flower beds to provide a source of organic matter. The leaves should be shredded to speed up their breaking down in the soil and prevent leaves from showing next spring. Be sure to thoroughly mix the leaves into the soil. If the leaves are left on top over the winter, the soil may be too cold and wet to work in the spring.

3. Shredded leaves can be used as a winter mulch to protect tender perennials through the coming harsh weather. Shredding the leaves will help prevent them from packing down as they get wet and smothering the plants that they are supposed to protect. To provide winter protection, apply a 3- to 6-inch layer of shredded leaves over the top of tender perennials after several hard freezes. The goal of winter mulch is to keep plants dormant through the winter, so it must be applied after the ground is cold and plants are fully dormant.

4. Compost the leaves. Compost provides many benefits to your yard, garden and the environment. Good quality compost supplies organic matter, stable nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. Start by putting leaves into a compost bin, any container that holds the leaves and allows air and water in. It’s best to mix some nitrogen into the leaves as you add them to the compost bin. Leaves are high in carbon, which makes great compost, but they’re comparatively low in nitrogen, and that’s what decomposing bacteria need. You can add nitrogen in the form of fertilizer or fresh green organic matter. The composting leaves should be turned every one to two weeks so the outside layers are exchanged with the materials in the center of the pile. Compost is ready to be used when it looks dark and crumbly and few of the starting ingredients are visible.

So as fall approaches enjoy the colors of the leaves and keep in mind the benefits fallen leaves can provide when they are processed back into the environment. To learn about leaf composting, go to: http://go.osu.edu/leaves.

Sprague is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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