Plant Health Alert – Leaves Are Fertilizer Don’t Throw Them Away!

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The Costs of  Throwing Away Leaves

sweetgum fall color

Tree leaves can be used as mulch. Sweetgum fruit can be annoying so gardeners should  rake the fruit into the mulch.

Leaves are good! Leaves are nature’s mulch, fertilizer and compost all rolled into one package. Let’s not throw away such a valuable resource.

Plants mine nutrients from the soil to use in their growth. In nature, these nutrients would be returned to the soil when plant matter such as leaves decomposes in the natural nutrient recycling process. In home gardens, when we harvest vegetables or in the landscape when we remove leaf litter, dead limbs, fallen trees or lawn clippings, we are mining nutrients, too. If we remove soil nutrients and never renew them then we will eventually run out.

Instead of burning or bagging up our leaves or grass clippings, or asking our municipalities to expend money and expel exhaust retrieving leaf and limb litter, let us recycle our organic material at home. Use your leaves as mulch in your plantings or compost them and return the organic matter back to the soil.

The Real Cost of Removing Leaves

In cities across America, leaf crews both public and private activate in the fall then again in the spring. In a small town, city workers can spend approximately three thousand hours a year collecting leaves. Labor plus fuel and equipment costs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for even the smallest municipality.

municipal leaf waste

Municipalities across America spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispose of leaves each fall.

Smaller cities might run two crews Monday through Friday through the fall and early winter. Each crew is equipped with a single dump truck and a leaf vac or a large tractor pulling a leaf vac. Each crew is followed by a chaser or safety truck. New equipment to outfit one crew could cost nearly two hundred thousand dollars.

leaf litter on forest floor

Leaf covered yards are habitat for many creatures including the rare  Blue Ghost Firefly. Removing leaves creates a yard that is biologically bankrupt.

Many Species Depend on Leaves

white squirrel

Animals large and small depend on leaf litter in some way. Larger mammals feed on acorns and seeds that lie among the leaf litter on the soil surface. Deer, squirrel, turkey, bear and many other animals depend upon this cached food source throughout the winter. Besides nuts and seeds, larger animals feed on smaller invertebrates found living in the leaf litter.

Slugs, snails, earthworms, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, pillbugs and grubs live in the protected shelter of leaves and consume organic matter on the forest floor. Some creatures spend their entire lives in leaf litter and soil. Other invertebrates spend certain parts of their lives in leaf litter. Some animals such as salamanders, turtles, lizards, moles, voles, etc. use the litter for habitat, nesting and hibernating.

Have you ever heard of a ‘blue ghost firefly‘? This rare insect is only found in our area. The females live in the leaves on the forest floor. The males float just above the forest floor barely visible to the naked eye. Removing leaves from yards destroys them.

 fall color

Trees Mine Nutrients – Leaves Replenish Soil Nutrients

Trees mine nutrients from the soil and use the nutrients to create plant tissues such as wood and leaves. In nature, trees return these nutrients through decomposing leaf litter on the forest floor. In urban/suburban yards, trees remove soil nutrients then we remove the leaves. This creates a negative withdrawal from the soil nutrient bank account. Removing leaves year after year can result in unhealthy urban soils. Imagine the tons of nutrients removed from the urban soil each year by leaf clean up! The loss of this organic matter impacts urban tree health negatively.

Composting Recycles Leaves

composting leaves woman turning compost in a bin

Instead of disposing of yard trimmings and kitchen scraps, you can compost them in your own backyard. Composting is an easy and natural way to recycle. Compost can be made from most organic materials such as leaves, kitchen scraps, and yard trimmings, and it can improve the health of your soil and plants. You can be as involved as you like with your compost pile. You can simply stack things up and wait for nature to take its course. Or, if you want your compost to happen faster than you need to turn, water, and monitor the pile to speed up the process.

When mixed with soil, compost increases the organic matter content, improves the physical properties of the soil, and supplies essential nutrients, enhancing the soil’s ability to support plant growth. Compost can also be applied to the soil surface to conserve moisture, control weeds, reduce erosion, improve appearance, and keep the soil from gaining or losing heat too rapidly.