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Rake Less, Save Time, Recycle Leaves
Fall is a colorful season of yellows, oranges and reds, and the transition into chilly weather. It also brings piles of leaves! Did you know that yard trimmings and food scraps together make up a quarter of all the waste sent to landfills in the U.S.? It’s silly to send material such as autumn leaves to landfills when they could become beneficial compost instead.
Using compost helps you practice the first R for Reduce, as it reduces the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Compost is a mixture of decomposed plant materials and other organic waste, and costs a lot less to use than artificial soil amendments. Composting doesn’t need to be time-consuming either.
Start recycling leaves by using them as a resource in a natural process that takes place not just in bins, but also in planting beds, lawns and gardens. Read on for fall leaf clean up tips, including the best way to clean up leaves, and leaf disposal and mulch for your yard.
Really Rakin’ It In
People have different strategies for dealing with leaves. Some choose to spend more money and use large bagging mowers and power chippers or to haul clippings away. Others choose to expend more energy than money by mowing frequently in fall to shred leaves. Small amounts of leaves, when shredded with the lawn mower, can be recycled as an organic nutrient source just by leaving them on the lawn. Letting clippings lie on the lawn, for example, or replacing lawns with natural planting beds generates less waste. Many gardeners do a combination of these methods.
Leaves are not only used as an ingredient in compost, but they can also be reused to mulch perimeter plantings. This means that you get to rake less! Decomposition can take one month to two years, depending on how actively the compost pile is managed.
Composting leaves is a good alternative to backyard burning. A number of states currently ban leaf burning, and some communities that don’t have an outright ban will restrict when and where burning can take place. Burning leaves and other yard trimmings pollutes the air and can lead to uncontrolled fires. Be mindful that leaf smoke can make breathing difficult for people who suffer from allergies or asthma.
Instead, easily recycle leaves into nutrient-rich compost, which will:
- Improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils
- Improve the aeration of clay soils and provide plant nutrients
Building a compost pile means having a green layer and a brown layer. Allow for air flow underneath the pile by setting 4 to 6 inches of chopped brush or coarse material over some soil. Green is the low-carbon organic material, like grass clippings, and goes on top of the pile. Then add a 3- to 4-inch layer of damp. Follow this with the brown layer, which is the 4- to 6-inch layer of high-carbon organic material like dried leaves.
Both of these layers should be damp, so add water if necessary. Put branches and twigs larger than one-quarter inch in diameter through a shredder or chipper before composting. Finally, add a 1-inch layer of garden soil or finished compost which adds the microorganisms needed to break down organic matter. Mix these layers together and then add more materials to the pile in layer by layer. For more composting tips and do’s and dont’s, see how to compost.
Manage Your Fall Leaves
Periodic mowing to chop up small amounts of leaves reduces lawn raking and provides a good source of organic fertilizer. Make sure that ample grass shows through the leaves, and do not allow them to mat.
Many yards have odd corners, often fenced in, that trap leaves every spring and fall. These corners require frequent cleaning up, and often are hard to reach with the lawn mower. Use these odd areas to establish a corner planting bed that will hide and recycle the leaves. A good place to stash fall leaf piles is under evergreens.
Areas such as raised plant beds recycle their own leaves and twigs, and accept material from other areas as well. Leaves, twigs, pulled weeds, clippings from lawn areas that occasionally get too long, and even leftover garden items like carrot stems or a banana peel will naturally recycle themselves. Decomposing materials in this way also benefits plantings by keeping weeds down. Remember:
- Add your leaves to compost instead of paying for them to be hauled away and save money and energy.
- If you’re not able to compost at home, keep on the lookout if your city offers a free, leaf drop-off location or service.
- Utilize your city’s compostable yard waste pick-up service. Usually there will be guidelines such as placing your leaves in large paper bags or a compost cart from the city set on the curbside by a certain time on your neighborhood’s pick-up day.
Make space while avoiding waste! Continue to explore this site and think creatively about what will work for your yard, such as our feature about Cold Compost.