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Falling leaves: love ‘em or leave ‘em?

The Plant Man column for publication week of 10/23/05 - 10/29/05 (749 words) ###

The Plant Man by Steve Jones

Falling leaves: love ‘em or leave ‘em?

There’s a reason they call this season “fall.” Those leaves that look so beautiful as they turn from green to gold to crimson don’t look so attractive when they’ve become a sodden carpet on your lawn.

So what should you do? Rake? Mow? Mulch? Or simply leave the leaves alone?

Let’s look at the last one first. It’s tempting to procrastinate and put off dealing with those leaves “because there are still a few that haven’t fallen yet.” Bad idea... for several reasons.

Freshly fallen leaves are light and brittle, making them easy to rake or pile up with a blower. Wet, compacted leaves are heavy, difficult to rake and almost impossible to move with a leaf-blower. Ignore the leaves now and your chore will be even harder later!

But there’s an even more important reason: disease control. A carpet of wet leaves will prevent essential sunlight and air from reaching your lawn and will encourage various diseases to get a grip on your sod.

So we agree that keeping fallen leaves under control throughout the season is your best policy. What are your options?

Before I start raking the lawn, I try to remind myself to rake all the accumulated leaves out from the flower beds and around the various shrubs. It can be disheartening to survey your freshly raked lawn... and then spot the leaves, twigs and other debris you missed, lurking under your bushes! During the winter, the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle can cause dead grass and organic material to release soluble phosphates and nitrates that can run off frozen ground and enter surface water.

If you start early enough, while the layer of fallen leaves is quite light and brittle, you can simply run the mower over them. With a regular mower, you’ll probably want to make two or three passes to be sure you’ve shredded the leaves into very small particles. If you have a large area of lawn and a number of trees, you might want to invest in a mulching mower. This machine can shred leaves virtually into a powder. This has the added benefit of adding a natural mulch to your lawn while saving you the labor of raking and bagging.

If you are serious about your landscape, you probably have a compost pile. If not, this could be a good time to start one. There are several helpful articles and previous columns on this subject archived at my Web site, www.landsteward.org where you can scroll through the columns under the Plant Man heading. If you have specific questions on this subject (or any other) feel free to send an e-mail to me at [email protected] and I’ll send you a personal reply.

While you’re doing your fall clean-up chores, remember to add those fading “leggy” annuals and any vines from your vegetable garden to the leaves in your compost so the can all cook together. Do not add meat or bones to your compost as you’re likely to attract unwanted critters or your own pets. Diseased plants or clippings from a lawn recently treated with a herbicide or a weedkiller should not go into your compost either.

Lawn care
Even if your lawn is completely free of fallen leaves, it still needs a little TLC at this time of year. Mow the grass so it is between two and three inches. Why? Grass that is much longer than three inches can mat and this can encourage winter diseases such as snow mold. Cut grass down to less than two inches and you can adversely affect your lawn’s capability to absorb and store the nutrients it will need to come back strong next spring.

Fertilizing your lawn
If your lawn could do with a little boost, fall is a good time to apply fertilizer. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need about one pound per 1,000 square feet of lawn. If you’re a fan of organic solutions (as I am), send me an e-mail and I’ll give you some details about an organic “turf tea” that I found recently.

If you mow ‘em, mulch ‘em or bag ‘em, now is the time to work on those leaves. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear your lawn sighing happily!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org