Fall Leaf Management

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

It’s at this time of year that we clearly understand why another term for autumn is “fall”! The slightest breeze brings down a shower of leaves from shade and ornamental trees. Blessed with an abundance of oak trees around my home, I’ve got a thick layer of leaves needing attention.

An old friend of mine, Butch, would tell me how he and his sons would spend the Thanksgiving break raking up leaves, picking up limbs, putting away tools, and wrapping up all gardening chores until it was time to start their vegetable garden again in early spring.

I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all. This Thanksgiving break may keep many of us closer to home, but I hope that we look at several good options of what to do with the abundance of leaves and pine straw that we often find in our landscapes.

One fun thing to do is to rake them into big piles for the kids to jump into and scatter around again. At least it’s the most fun for the kids. The least enjoyable is raking and bagging them.

While bagging for curbside garbage pickup is an option, I’d argue is the worst choice. The problem is that all those bags of leaves from across the community are sent to the landfill, wasting space in it and wasting a landscape asset.

Those leaves are all-natural, organic, weed-free, and using them somewhere in your landscape is the ultimate in recycling!

One choice some folks take is to do nothing and just let the leaves remain on top of your lawn all winter. This is not good for our southern turfgrasses. A dense layer creates a dark, damp, stagnant zone where diseases can proliferate, harming the turf.

Burning is not really the best option either. When younger, I thought it was cool to have a burning leaf pile, but neighbors who suffer from allergies or asthma often find that burning leaves aggravates symptoms and makes breathing difficult. Not too long ago, one of my neighbors came storming over after the ashes from my burning leaves drifted several down the road and settled on his newly waxed and detailed sportscar. I’m not sure that relationship has still mended.

If you leaf accumulation is not too thick, mowing the leaves in place is the easiest and most simple means of disposal. Many folks seem hesitant to recycle leaves back into the lawn, fearing they will create thatch or other problems. But research done in many parts of the country has shown that mowing leaves into the lawn does not cause any problems.

The best results are obtained by using a mulching mower which cuts and recuts leaves several times. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the microbes, which are active all year, can attack and break down the leaves into humus. I’m always amazed that they “disappear” into the turfgrass.

You will need to make two or more passes over larger tree leaves to get a finely shredded product. I

often wait until I think all the leaves are on the ground, but that may not be the easiest method. The deeper the layer, the more difficult it is to get them all shredded.

Sheet composting is an option for vegetable or new flower garden areas where you place a layer of shredded leaves over the surface of the soil and let them decompose in place. A thin layer of cotton seed meal will speed the decomposition. Alternatively, you can also rototill the layer of leaves into the soil.

If you want to go ahead and prepare your vegetable garden rows, place the loose leaves down the middles where your walkways will be. The raised rows will keep them from blowing away. Furthermore, you are building a walkway for next year and a composting trench to use in the following years.

I cannot brag too much on how mulching is a great way to deal with excess leaves. You can place leaves in the pathways of your garden and flower bed. Again, they provide dry footing to walk on, will decompose in place, help reduce weed problems, and enrich the soil, all at the same time.

Another use for shredded leaves is as a layer of mulch in perennial and shrub beds, and around the base of young trees. Just make sure that larger leaves are shredded first. Large leaves when dry are subject to being blown offsite. Large leaves when wet can mat into a nearly impermeable layer, restricting air and water movement.

For those who are blessed with an abundance of pine straw, a truly simple solution exists: rake and use as mulch. While most folks around our part of the world may think it unseemly to use in that manner, the majority of southern states, from Louisiana to the Atlantic, use it all the time.

My friend Clay Alverson has a successful business baling and selling pine straw throughout the south. We have it as a wonderful, natural resource and turn our noses up to it. If you do rake up any pine straw and bag it up, please send me an email and I’d love to come pick it up and take it to my house to use in my landscape!

Bottom line, take some time outside to clean up the leaves and pine needles, but use them in one of the ways that will benefit you and be an environmentally responsible.

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