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Master Gardener: Don't rake fallen leaves from lawn and reap the benefits
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Master Gardener: Don't rake fallen leaves from lawn and reap the benefits

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The leaves on my trees are starting to fall. Every year I dread all the raking and bagging. Is there a better solution for all these leaves? — R.K.

Yes, there are several good solutions for the leaves that are beginning to rain down on us. But the first step is to change our attitude about the leaves. Rather than look at them as a nuisance, we should look at them as a gift. Let me explain why.

In natural world (as compared to the micro-environments we call our yards), when leaves fall from the trees, they accomplish several things.

First of all, they return vital nutrients back to the soil. Believe it or not, leaves are 1% nitrogen, which is about the same as composted manure. But leaves also contain phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, boron, iron, manganese, chloride, sodium, copper and zinc. And since these nutrients come in the form of a natural leaf rather than a fertilizer pellet, as these leaves decompose, they also increase the organic matter in your soil, which improves soil tilth and its ability to hold water. That’s not a bad deal.

In addition, leaves provide a natural habitat for a variety of insects to overwinter. These insects include butterflies, moths, snails, spiders and dozens of arthropods. Most of us are familiar with the yearly migration of monarch butterflies, but this practice is not utilized by the vast majority of butterflies. Many butterflies overwinter as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or even an adult. For example, luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their chrysalises and cocoons to blend in with the real leaves.

Bumblebees also depend on fallen leaves for protection during the winter. When summer is over, the mated queen will burrow into the earth an inch or two to hibernate for the winter. A layer of leaves provides extra protection from the elements during this hibernation.

Now, you might be thinking, “I don’t really want all those insects overwintering in my yard.” But remember, these insects are not only needed pollinators but also provide a food source for birds and a variety of other animals.

So, even now that we know the important ways leaves provide overwintering sites for insects and add nutrients and organic matter back into the soil, most are still not going to be willing to leave the leaves on our yards all winter because without sun, our turf grass will not prosper. So, here is an approach we can take toward the fallen leaves that will still be a great improvement from bagging them up and hauling them off.

First, resist the urge to rake and clean up your garden at the end of the season. Just leave the fallen leaves in place in your garden areas. Yes, your yard might look a little different than the neighbors’, but you will be accomplishing two things: you will be providing a natural habitat for overwintering insects and getting a few hours back in your life by not having to be out there raking and bagging leaves. Besides, when spring comes, you will already have a nice protective layer of leaf mulch in place to help reduce weed growth.

It’s also a good idea to resist the urge to cut down the stalks from your perennial and annual flowers since some insects like to overwinter in these as well.

When it comes to your lawn, there is a pretty simple strategy that protects your turf from being shaded out with leaves and prepares those leaves to more quickly transition to nutrients for your soil: mulching.

I, like many of you, used to spend every weekend in the fall out there raking, blowing and bagging all the leaves in our yard. This was not only time-consuming but also counterproductive in that I was removing nutrients from our yard that could ultimately be used to improve our soil. Now I just mow the yard with the mower in mulch mode and never have to bag the leaves again. In my case it only adds a mowing or two to the season and I would much rather be out there mowing than raking and bagging leaves, but maybe that’s just me.

Another practice I have adopted is to collect all the leaves that fall on the driveway, sidewalk, back deck and along the curb to run through a leaf-mulcher. I discovered leaf-mulchers a few years back and love them. Stand-alone leaf-mulchers cost around $100, but that should pay for itself pretty quickly, especially if you have been hiring someone to remove the leaves from your yard in the fall. If you can’t invest in one of those, you can pile the leaves on the driveway and mulch them with your mower.

Once I have these leaves mulched and bagged, I store about 15-20 bags in the back corner of the yard where they will sit until they are needed in the spring. At that point I’ll bring them out and use them for mulch in our vegetable and flower gardens.

Once you adopt some of these practices, you’ll not only be helping the environment, but I predict fall leaf season will be just that much more enjoyable. See you in the garden!

You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by the Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or by emailing mg@tulsamastergardeners.org.


A better way than raking and bagging leaves as trash? Mowing and mulching.

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