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Dos and Don'ts of Leaf Disposal

Recycling specialist Marta Keane says fall is the best time to start a compost. And leaves make a perfect carbon source in your compost.

When it comes to leaf disposal, Marta Keane is all about Dos and Don’ts.

Keane, a recycling specialist with the Will County Land Use Department, also is all about the knowledge-is-power ideal that can help area residents make smarter choices when cleaning up their yards.

“The first thing to realize is that leaves, while they may seem like a nuisance when they fall on the ground, are actually filled with nutrients and having trees does so many beneficial things for your home,” Keane said.

“Beyond just they beauty of them, they can increase property value. They can act as a windbreak, which slows the wind when it’s hitting your home so possibly you don’t lose shingles or you don’t have wind shear on your siding.

“Then, also, they can actually decrease your heating costs because of that windbreak, depending on what kind of trees you use and where they’re placed. In the summertime, they can have a huge impact on your air conditioning bill. Placed properly on the south side of your home, they’re going to create shade.

“And, then, in the wintertime, when all those leaves are off, they’re going to let the sun hit the home and warm it up. So, they’re doing incredibly beneficial things. To just see them as the nuisance of cleaning up all the leaf litter, you’re not seeing them in the big picture. You want to think of it in the whole scheme of life.”

Leaf Disposal Checklist

Keane advocates following these dos and don’ts with regard to leaf disposal:

DO: Simple, easy. Keane said the easiest way to dispose of leaves is to chop them up with a mulching mower. Run the mower over the leaves 2-3 times and leave them to degrade over the winter months on your lawn.

“The nutrients that are in those leaves are going to go right back into your yard,” Keane said. “So, if you’re one of those folks who goes out in the spring and fertilizes the yard, if you’d just mowed those leaves over and let them disintegrate—you’ve created a nice winter fertilizer. By spring they’re all gone, not because they blew away, but simply because they start to degrade as soon as they’re cut.”

DO: Compost. If you don’t want to leave chopped leaves on your lawn—you don’t like the way it looks—collect mowed leaves in your bagger and start a compost.

“This is the best time to start a backyard compost,” Keane said. “Scientifically, leaves will be a carbon source. Brushed chips are a carbon source. All people really have to remember is ‘brown.’ You need two-thirds brown material to one-third green material, which is nitrogen, in order to have a perfect compost.

“A perfect compost heats up and starts to degrade fairly rapidly, kills any seeds that are in weeds and then forms within a few months what is called a humus material. That’s a soil amendment.”

Keane said humus can be used to fertilize trees and bushes or added to flower beds and vegetable gardens in the spring. Add “green” elements such as shredded newspaper, kitchen scraps or pumpkin rinds to the brown leaves to create a one-third, two-thirds compost mix.

DO: Bag and drop. Bag leaves and set them out for collection or rake leaves and pile them next to the curb if your city, town or village has a collection plan in place.

“Many of the cities that collect leaves will bring them to our farms, and our farmers will plow them right into their fields,” Keane said. “Some of the cities bring sludge, too, at this time of the year, when the harvest is in, and those farmers recognize those leaves and that sludge are providing valuable nutrients. So, they’re getting a soil amendment without paying for it. In fact, they can often actually get paid for taking the time to spread that collected waste across their fields.”

DON’T: Bag and toss. Don’t throw leaves out in your regular waste pickup containers. In many areas, leaves are banned from being placed in landfills.

“They take up a lot of space,” Keane said. “So, even though they eventually degrade—in a landfill, they are deprived of oxygen. They’re buried. So, it takes them much longer to degrade. And, of course, there are no nutrients that are recovered if they are put in a landfill.”

DON’T: Send up smoke signals. Don’t burn leaves unless you follow regulations in place in your community. Keane said leaf burning leads to air pollution, health problems and fire hazards, not to mention the irritant smoke.

“Smoke is going to cause complaints,” she said. “If you have residents with emphysema or asthma or other lung ailments, they’re not going to be very happy that they’re breathing in the particulate matter that comes from burning leaves. Wet leaves cause the highest amount of particulate matter.”

DON’T: Turn a swale into a swamp. Don’t dump leaves in ditches on the side of the road, even if you live in a rural area. This can lead to drainage problems and cause flooding along roadways.

DON’T: Dirty waterways. Don’t dump leaves in creeks or streams. Yes, some leaves fall naturally into rivers and tributaries. But putting too many leaves in the waterways will disrupt the natural ecosystem.

“(This) can cause problems downstream,” Keane said. “It can change the temperature of the water, depending on how fast they’re decomposing.”

COMING SATURDAY: Patch wants to know what you think; if you were king for a day, would you ban burning leaves? Vote in our Patch poll.

Frank DeVries October 30, 2012 at 11:49 AM
I have almost 400 rose bushes in my back yard and roses love oak leaves , because of the slight acidity of them . I take a number of my neighbors oak leaves and mulch them up and put them all around the bases of the rose bushes. By spring they are pretty much gone. It helps the soil ,the worms the birds and I use less water because of the covering it slows up evaporation.
Ron Kremer (Editor) October 30, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Frank: Thanks for sharing this wonderful idea. I never thought of putting Oak tree leaves under/around rose bushes. I'm sure it makes a great compost/mulch.
Carol Roeske October 30, 2012 at 07:48 PM
Those are great ideas and I will do that. However,one of the best smells in the world is the smell of burning leaves in autumn. So I'll be doing some of that too:)
Linda T October 31, 2012 at 01:41 PM
Why haul and buy mulch, and buy yard waste bags and stickers, when you've got the best mulch right there in your yard already. Fall leaves make fantastic mulch. I use them in my ornamental and vegetable gardens. They break down naturally, and feed soil and plant roots. Some get mulched into the lawn, the rest go on our gardens, and none of them go into yard waste bags or containers..
Ozzy November 01, 2012 at 10:43 AM
I know someone in the landscaping business and get all the leaves I can from him. I'll put a two foot layer of unmowed leaves over flower beds and by the end of summer they are completely composted. They also go in the garden and a big mulch container. I've even taken them from neighbor's after they raked them of course :-) Love them leaves!
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