What to do with leaves, including nothing
December is a month for rituals. When I was a kid, it was a ritual to watch the sky every night just in case the jolly fat man decided to get an early start. He never did, but that never stopped me.
Raking leaves is typically an autumn ritual done to maintain a tidy and well-kept lawn. Itís ideal to wait until the trees have completely shed their leaves, but in the Lowcountry, that means waiting until December.
Raking is good exercise. At least, thatís what my dad always told me. He also said eating beets made my blood red.
However, raking requires a lot of twisting that can cause back pain. Therefore, raking is a young manís game, especially when most of those leaves are in the backyard. While a leaf blower is a convenient option to preventing back aggravation, fuel and noise pollution sometimes can be limiting.
For some people, the scent of burning leaves is a hallmark of fall. Well, no more. City ordinances regarding leaf disposal vary, but in many municipalities, such as North Charleston, burning leaves is no longer allowed due to pollution and health concerns. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, burning leaves results in asthma-inducing irritants and carcinogenic hydrocarbons.
Many municipalities provide curbside pickup of leaves. Goose Creek and Mount Pleasant require leaves to be disposed inside yard-waste paper bags that can be purchased at garden centers. North Charleston requires leaves to be contained in clear plastic bags. Summerville will pick up leaves if they are simply piled near the curb like other yard debris. However, it can be a long trip from the backyard to the curb. Some industrious homeowners rake leaves onto a tarp or plastic sheet and drag the pile all at once.
However, there are several alternatives to managing fallen leaves on your property. Leaves can be raked or blown into planting beds like mulch. Some neighborhood covenants may prohibit this in the front yard, but in most cases, thereís nothing wrong with the practice, especially if your backyard is more naturalized. Under normal circumstances, fallen leaves decompose relatively quickly without a problem.
While some fallen leaves harbor fungal disease, in most cases, they are relatively harmless. In fact, leaf spot disease is a common occurrence in the fall, when trees are redirecting energy out of foliage, causing them to be more susceptible to fungal invasion. Leaves soon fall from the tree, aborting the pathogens.
While fallen leaves are commonly a disease problem, there are occasions when sanitation helps control particular diseases. Once such example is flower blight on camellias. Flower blight is a fungal infection that causes camellia flowers to prematurely drop from the shrub. While this doesnít harm the plant, it does reduce its aesthetic value.
Camellia growers fastidiously collect senesced flowers and petals to remove overwintering pathogens that can infect the following yearís blooms.
Maybe the natural look isnít your style. Another option is to grind the leaves with the lawn mower. Leaf debris will not harm turf and does not contribute to thatch.
Note: The lawn mower should not be stored for the winter with gas in the tank to avoid gumming up the carburetor. Therefore, once the leaves are mowed, leave the mower running until the gas is gone.
Fallen leaves also can be composted. Compost piles require a balance of high-nitrogen green material, such as food scraps, and high-carbon brown material. And leaves are a great source of brown material. However, unless youíre a serious composter with a large area dedicated to the practice, youíre likely to have far more leaves than the composter will handle.
So maybe youíre like me and donít do anything with the leaves. Just let nature do the work and leave them where they lie. No harm will come to turf unless they are piled exceptionally deep, in which case matting and light exclusion could become a problem in spring. Under normal circumstances, theyíll decompose like nature intended. Plus, youíll save on chiropractic expenses.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.