Green leaves

Alternatives to Dumpster-bound autumn leaves

From left, sisters Emma, 8, and Elinor Hansen, 10, have raked many leaves this season in Old Southwest Reno.

From left, sisters Emma, 8, and Elinor Hansen, 10, have raked many leaves this season in Old Southwest Reno.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

Every fall, thousands of people rake up the leaves in their yards, stuff them into garbage bags and Dumpsters, and take them to the curb to be picked up as trash. JoAnne Skelly has a word for this: Silly.

“It’s gold. Garden gold, all that good stuff,” says Skelly, an extension coordinator with the UNR Cooperative Extension office in Carson City.

Raking leaves serves a purpose, primarily for people with lawns. While some research indicates that mowing leaves into your lawn can actually improve it, a heavy layer of leaves will prevent the sun from reaching the lawn, eventually killing it. However, in the places where no lawn is growing—flower beds and around tree trunks, for instance—leaves are beneficial.

“I use leaves to mulch all my flower beds, all my trees, all my shrubs,” says Skelly. “I use up to 3-4 inches of leaves, and I compact those down by walking on them or pressing them with a rake so they don’t blow away. That protects those plants from drying out through the winter.”

Mulching and composting leaves are the two main alternatives for those who would prefer their leaves work with the environment as opposed to abusing it through burning or waste.

Whether mulching or composting, use your lawn mower or a mulcher to shred the leaves. Though this step isn’t absolutely necessary, it helps them decompose faster and allows more air and moisture to reach the soil. The mulch is ready to be used as soon as the leaves are shredded and collected. A leaf mulching will prevent weed growth and eventually break down to add organic nutrients to the soil, at which point it’ll be time to mulch again.

“Ideally, you don’t use leaves you’ve noticed have had a lot of insect problems like aphids or from trees you’ve noticed have been sick,” says Skelly. “But really, just rake them up, and put them where you want them.”

A compost pile needs a healthy ratio of carbon to nitrogen, which some gardeners say is about 30:1, though most experiment to see what works best for them. The nitrogen is found in “greens"—kitchen waste, grass clippings, manure—and the carbon is found in the “browns"—hay, leaves, wood chips. Autumn leaves can be collected for later composting by setting them in a pile beside the compost bin. Or you can add them along with your kitchen waste to the compost bin now, but you may need to make some ratio adjustments come springtime.

Another practice is simply taking a thin layer of shredded leaves and working it into the soil as an amendment.

Of course, says Skelly, there’s that other time-honored tradition: “You can just run and jump into the pile.”