Roots and Shoots: Leaves — Nuisance or Treasure?

By Pamela Doan

It’s that time of year when the peace and tranquility of our neighborhoods is broken by the thundering whine of leaf blowers. No offender is too small to escape the vigilance — twigs, mown grass, and leaves, of course — anything that is not attached to a green blade of grass is fair game. Just exactly where it all goes is another matter. The road, the surrounding woods, and the streams are all easy targets for a place to hide or dump whatever can be moved with a strong rush of air. This is a familiar scene throughout Philipstown.

From pretty fall landscape to fertilizer for the garden, leaves are a valuable resource.

From pretty fall landscape to fertilizer for the garden, leaves are a valuable resource.

All that organic material is being wasted, though. Many communities are suspending leaf pick-up and encouraging ways to reuse leaves in the yard. If I didn’t have so many trees already, I’d be asking neighbors for their leftovers. Consider this, 30 percent of the trash that goes into a landfill is compostable material. All the fruit and vegetable scraps, the yard debris including leaves, brush and the plants that we cut back this time of year, it’s all in that percentage of stuff that we throw away instead of using it like the treasure it is. The 30-percent figure is from the Putnam County website, too. I’ve seen national figures that are higher, up to 40 percent.

Here are a few suggestions for those tree leaves covering the lawn:

Rake into a pile and let them decompose for a year. The leaves don’t need to be shredded. They will break down into rich mulch that can be used to add nutrients and help plants retain moisture. A leaf pile is also good to create a nesting place for insects and worms that will draw hungry birds to forage.

Shred and use for a layer in the garden beds

Create a simple planting bed for flowers or vegetables by layering shredded leaves, compost and peat moss. Shred the leaves with the lawn mower or by dumping them in a trashcan and running a trimmer through them. The leaves must be shredded, though, to use this way. Shredding speeds decomposition.

Shred into the lawn when you mow to add organic matter

Just run over the leaves with a lawn mower to chop them up and let them stay on the lawn. The leaves will break down into the soil and add nutrients as they decompose. This is one of the easiest solutions but it will take action to make this work. From experience, once the leaves get too thick, this becomes difficult. Plan on mowing weekly.

Create a hedge; make a simple structure and stuff or pile leaves on it

Need a barrier? Instead of a fence, make a living hedge out of brush and leaves. It will attract wildlife and make a receptacle that can be constantly replenished as it breaks down. This doesn’t have to be messy. It can be a statement piece with a rustic, natural look. Chicken wire, stacked branches, or rocks make foundation pieces for the hedge.

Compost the leaves

Decomposing leaves are perfect for layering compost. Add them in with fruit and vegetable scraps, dead plant material from the garden and flowerbeds, wood chips, newspaper, and eggshells to prepare a rich fertilizer next spring. Set aside a pile of shredded leaves that you can add to the compost pile during the winter.

Smother weeds

Leaves that are shredded or whole can be used to kill off an area that needs re-planting. Better than landscape fabric, the leaves make a natural barrier that can later be used as mulch and worked into the soil.

Why not burn leaves? Burning is not allowed throughout the state. In an effort to reduce wildfires and pollution, leaf and household trash burning is banned.

A note on watering

The drought conditions that have led local officials to encourage water conservation by Philipstown residents affect landscape trees, too. Going into winter, water trees and shrubs one inch per week when it doesn’t rain. Trees that go into the cold season water-deprived are vulnerable and ill-prepared for the harsh conditions of the upcoming months. Make sure it’s only one inch, though. Anything more isn’t necessary and is wasted.

Photo by P. Doan

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