As kids, it was actually fun to see leaves fall in autumn. That’s because one of our chores was to rake the leaves to the street and burn them. We didn’t have curbs and paved streets back then, just a layer of blacktop that was level with our yard.
We would spread the leaves out the full width of our property; not too deep, and then light matches until we got one section to start burning. Once that section started, we would lift some of the burning leaves with the rake onto another section until the whole width was on fire.
I loved the smell of burning leaves and still miss it to this day. However, from my now admittedly adult perspective, leaf burning was a dangerous practice. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn ourselves and/or our houses to the ground.
What’s even scarier is that the Environmental Protection Agency says leaf burning leads to air pollution and serious health problems. Burning leaves in the open produces particulate matter and hydrocarbons laced with a number of toxic, cancer-causing compounds, such as carbon monoxide. Particulates in smoke, if inhaled, can penetrate the deepest recesses of the lungs and remain there for years. Now you tell me.
So what should we do with our leaves? If your community has leaf pickup, they can be raked to the curb and the city will “vacuum” them off your lawn. Here in Huron where I live, the leaf sweeper died an inglorious death a few years ago and we now use our yard waste recycling program. We just rake the leaves, put them into yard waste cans, and they get picked up on garbage day.
This is an extra step that other homeowners in Erie County probably don’t have to worry about, but at least they aren’t sitting on the boulevard for weeks killing the grass underneath.
I don’t mind the work, and do it when the leaves get really deep, but prefer to use another method first.
• Chop the leaves with a mower
My first choice for leaf removal is to mulch the leaves with the lawn mower. Finely shredded leaves filter down through the grass and decompose, providing minerals and nutrients plants require. You may need to mow twice a week when the leaves start to fall fast and furious, but mowing is easier than raking and bagging. Take the grass catcher off your mower if you usually bag your grass clippings and mow right over the leaves on your lawn. The mower may become clogged if the leaves are wet, so mow when the leaves are dry.
You want to reduce your leaf clutter to dime-size pieces. Don’t leave too deep of a layer; you should be able to see about half an inch of grass through the mulched leaves. Once the leaf bits settle in, microbes and worms will get to work recycling them. The leaves will eventually decompose, adding their nutrients to the soil and improving soil structure. To speed up the process, you may want to apply a commercial fertilizer that provides nitrogen (not weed ‘n’ feed) that will help break down the leaves more quickly.
• Other options:
Leaves provide mulch you can use around trees, shrubs, or on top of gardens. They help retard the growth of weeds, retain soil moisture, and will protect against temperature fluctuations and some types of low temperature injury during the winter.