As brief as it is, I always think of the spectacular show of Ohio’s fall colors as a reward for putting up with our crazy weather patterns. Fall is one of my favorite seasons. I just love the toasty smell of the air and the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet. But what to do with all those leaves now that winter is quickly approaching?
Fallen leaves, referred to as “leaf litter,” are an important component of forest ecosystems. Leaf litter is used as habitat or food by many organisms such as insects, worms, spiders, and snails. These small critters are in turn eaten by bigger animals such as birds and rodents, so the benefits of leaf litter travel up the food chain. Decomposing leaves also provide important nutrients that are recycled back into the soil for trees and other plants to use.
In urban and suburban environments, fallen leaves can actually become an issue if not properly managed. Large quantities of leaves can kill grass, and clog drains and gutters. Fall leaves are also a contributor of phosphorus in urban water runoff. Phosphorus is a nutrient that in high amounts can contribute to harmful algal blooms like those we have seen in Lake Erie.
In a forest environment, phosphorus that leaches from leaf litter has a chance to infiltrate back into the soil before it can reach rivers or lakes. Urban environments are different because water runoff is transported over solid surfaces like asphalt and concrete that speed runoff flow and reduce infiltration.
Taking steps to manage the leaves on your property will not only make it look better, but it will also help keep the leaves out of the streets where they can cause the most trouble. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey done in Madison, Wisconsin, found that clearing streets of leaves and other organic debris in the fall significantly decreased the share of total annual phosphorus levels in runoff from 56 to 16 percent.
In the past, burning leaves was a common disposal practice but it is no longer recommended or even legal in some areas. In the state of Ohio, the open burning of yard waste is not permitted within the limits of any city or village. Leaf burning releases large amounts of smoke and particulate matter that is hazardous to asthmatics, young children, and the elderly.
The good news is that there are several other easy ways to do your part to manage fall leaves! The city of Delaware offers curbside pickup of leaves and other yard waste through mid-December when placed in biodegradable bags or 32 gallon containers with handles marked for yard waste. In Ohio, collected yard waste can be kept out of landfills or incinerators by taking it to dedicated facilities for composting and mulching.
For county residents without curbside pickup, leaves and yard waste are accepted at Price Farms Organics, Ltd., 4838 Warrensburg Road (free for those in the Delaware/Knox, Marion/Morrow (DKMM) Solid Waste District). Check out www.dkmm.org for other compost sites.
An even better option (with less raking to boot) is to mulch the leaves right back into your lawn using a lawn mower. Mulching the leaves into smaller pieces helps them decompose faster adding nutrients back into the soil. Research indicates that mulching leaves improves the green color of lawns and can also reduce the need for fertilizer and even the likelihood of weed growth the following year.
This practice works best on lawns with low to moderate amounts of leaf cover. Large volumes of leaves may still block out too much sun for the grass to grow well even after mulching. Leaves collected with a rake or a bagged mower can also be combined in a compost pile or applied as mulch to empty garden beds to reduce erosion from wind during the winter and early spring.
With holiday displays going up in stores, dropping temperatures, and Christmas music on the radio, I think it is fair to say that fall doesn’t always get the attention it deserves once the colors have faded. The season may be brief, but you would probably be surprised to learn that a fallen leaf can take up to two years to completely decompose. A little effort on your part can go a long way toward turning fall leaves into something beneficial instead of a problem.
Visit the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District’s website at www.delawareswcd.org for information on conserving your natural resources.
Rebecca Longsmith is Resource Conservationist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District.