Leaf Management

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
Leaf clean-up season has arrived. Depending on your point of view, leaf drop can be anything from a welcome sign that summer is really over to a minor inconvenience to a major landscaping challenge. Here are a couple of tips to help your landscape get the most out of the circumstances.

Chopping up your leaves with a mower is the best first step to leaf management, and sometimes the only one needed. Mulching mowers work very well for this but any rotary lawn mower will do the job. In addition to doing a better job of chopping up leaves, mulching mowers minimize the dust and debris the operator must endure. If you don’t have this option, you can effectively do the same thing with some mowers, either by simply letting the discharge shoot clog up with leaves, or leave the bag on the mower without dumping it.

The small pieces of leaves remaining after this process break down faster than full leaves, adding nutrients to the soil as they do so. Of course, there is a limit to how many leaves can remain on the surface without damaging the turf. In general, if you can still see some grass, you are probably ok.

If mulching does not do enough to eliminate the leaves, composting is the next step. Composting is one of those landscape tasks that can be accomplished a number of ways, from pile and forget to aggressively managing the pile to produce compost as quickly as possible.

To compost properly, leaves need air, moisture, and a nitrogen source. Without any of these three components, leaves can remain intact for several years with little decay. Occasional turning takes care of the air component. Rainfall is usually not enough to supply adequate moisture so occasional watering will probably be needed. Trying to fully wet a big pile of leaves is like trying to wet a newly waxed piece of glass, it just can’t be done. Watering the leaves as the pile is being constructed is much more effective.

As far as the nitrogen component, there are a few options. Anything “green” in the landscape such as grass clippings work well but obviously that is hard to come by as winter settles in. Non-meat food waste is also a good source. Another option is to sprinkle some commercial fertilizer on the pile, preferably throughout the pile as it is being constructed.

Composting does not require anything special in the way of a container, old pallets or cages made from wire work just fine. If these are not visually acceptable, manufactured compost bins are readily available.

For more information on composting and its role in building healthy soil, see
OSU Fact Sheet #HLA-6436 Healthy Garden Soils.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at
keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

Oklahoma State University, in compliance with Title VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order 11246 as amended, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and other federal laws and regulations, does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, age, religion, disability, or status as a veteran in any of its policies

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