Autumn brown to spring green

Mulching or composting leaves this fall can reduce waste at the curb and improve your lawn and garden next spring.

Fall leaves
Fall leaves

It appears that fall is finally here. Cooler weather, shorter days and autumn leaves. What was beautiful color on the trees last week is now not so pretty brown all over your lawn. Before you get out the rake or the blower, there may be some alternatives to blowing, raking, bagging and dragging those leaves to the curb. During the fall months, your trash can be as much as 50 percent yard waste in some areas. There are many advantages to handling your yard waste at the source (your home) for your landscape and the environment.

If you prefer to handle the leaves with as little effort as possible, consider mulching. Michigan State University research has shown several eco-friendly benefits to mulching leaves back into the grass: quicker spring green using less fertilizer and fewer weeds. The small decomposing leaf pieces provide nutrients to your lawn over the winter for quicker greening in the spring. They also cover any bare spots in the lawn that are good places for weed seeds to germinate.

To mulch the leaves into your lawn, set your mower at its highest setting and mow as usual. Then mow again in the other direction, making a crisscross or ninety-degree pattern. There will be some leaf residue left on the lawn, but it will continue to break down and fall through the grass to reduce future weeds and provide those essential nutrients. After all, fall is the best time to feed your lawn. After several years, this mulching process can result in almost complete elimination of dandelions and crabgrass in some cases. 

If you start mulching as the first leaves begin to fall, you should only need to mow your lawn weekly. However, if a heavy wind occurs, it may require you to mulch the leaves more frequently. Leaves can be mulched up to approximately six inches deep and have good results depending on the type of lawn mower you are using.

Another option for decreasing leaf waste for disposal is to use your mower to mulch and bag the leaves then use the ground leaves as mulch around flower beds, trees, shrubs and in vegetable gardens.  This also will provide nutrients to these areas and reduce weed germination making next spring that much easier.

Another option for leaf removal is composting. This also can be done using your lawn mower. Instead of mulching them back into the lawn, collect them in the mower bag and form a pile. Since there is probably still some lawn growth, you will get some grass clippings mixed in with the chopped up leaf debris. This is good. A good compost pile needs both carbon (leaves) and nitrogen (grass) for best decomposition. And because the leaves are chopped up into smaller pieces, they will decompose easier, giving you finished compost faster.

A compost pile can be just that; a pile in an easily accessible area away from buildings and fences. Or it can be as elaborate as a three bin compost bin system where the yard waste is turned into the next bin on a temperature-dependent cycle. With either option, finished compost will be the final result. 

Try mulching or composting those leaves for less waste at the curb this fall and an improved lawn or garden next spring. You may save some money in the process!

For more information on mulching, see Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening series. Information on composting can be found in the MSU Extension article, Yard Waste Practices Impact Water Quality Part 2. Additional information is available at the MSU Extension website and click on “Lawn & Garden” and search “leaf mulching”.

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