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Why Leave The Leaves?

The same leaves that add color to our neighborhoods in the fall can also add color to our lakes in the summer - and that can be a problem. Photo by Carol Markham

It’s that wonderful time of year where we can drink in the crisp, cool air and gaze upon the beautiful array of yellows, oranges and reds that adorn our trees as they slowly prepare themselves for winter. It’s a season full of change, beauty and opportunity we all can enjoy.

Unfortunately, these beautiful colors eventually fall to the ground and, as they decay, can release excess nutrients and phosphorous into our local streams and lakes, causing eutrophication and algal blooms. Leaves also contribute to a large volume of material that we or our local municipalities have to collect and haul to compost sites. The same leaves that add color to our neighborhoods in the fall can also add color to our lakes in the summer – and that can be a problem.

When leaves are piled at the curb or blown into the street, those leaf piles are exposed to rain which seeps through the piles, making a nutrient-rich tea that flows along the curb into storm drains and then to the lakes. Those nutrients are a significant contributor to the algae that turns our lakes into a green and smelly mess in the summer.

So that leads to the question…how can we better manage leaves to address this issue?

One of the easiest ways to help is to manage leaves right on your own property. Communities working together can reduce the need for leaf bagging and collection, reduce phosphorous runoff from leaves and improve the health of our soils and gardens.

When I was a kid, it was understood that once leaves fell, they were messy and had to be cleaned up and removed. It’s a new day, though, and it’s time for some new thinking! It is time to view leaves as an asset that can be used to improve our lawns and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, as well as making great mulch, garden cover or rich compost.

I understand that many homes in Chautauqua County produce too many leaves to be composted or mulched on site, but any amount of leaves that you can handle at home will clean our water, benefit the environment and help save tax dollars. Here are a few ways you can handle leaves on your property:

MULCH LEAVES ON YOUR LAWN

Most of us mulch our grass clippings right back into our lawns, which provides valuable nutrients for our lawns and saves us trips to the yard waste drop off sites. It turns out that mulching leaves back into your lawn is also good for our lawns and also reduces the time we spend raking in the fall. Mowing and mulching your leaves right into your lawn with your mower is easy. Mowers cut leaves into small pieces, allowing them to fall into and beneath the blades of grass instead of resting upon it, which in turn makes it easier for insects and microbes to consume the leaves and put nutrients back into the soil. Leaf mulching also provides a softer cushion in your lawn in the following summer for walking and playing in your yard.

MAKE LEAF

COMPOST

Composting is a great way to handle leaves at home. Of course, most of us cannot possibly compost all of our leaves on our properties, but composting can make a dent in the volume of leaves you put at the curb for collection or carry to the dump. When you compost leaves, you should be sure to add some nitrogen rich material to the pile to help the leaves (which are high in carbon) break down. Grass clippings are an excellent source of nitrogen as are fruit and vegetable scraps. You can also speed up the composting process by chopping up your leaves with a lawn mower or garden chipper.

MAKE LEAF MULCH

Leaves make great mulch and winter ground cover for gardens and around shrubs and trees. And they are free! Shred your leaves and pile them on top of your vegetable garden or around perennial plants and shrubs. This will help insulate plants and protect them from winter freeze damage.

Who knew that our beautiful fall leaves could be such an asset! And all we had to do was think a little differently about how we manage them.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization with the mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

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