The curtain of leaves showering down in autumn can be magically beautiful. I remember with glee running through great heaps and piles of leaves with my brothers. My dad would haul out a big canvas and we would fill it with leaves and drag it to the compost pile.
While our pre-composting activities need to be revised, the act of keeping your leaves on your property is a great one. Even then, we were ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally by returning the nutrients of cast-off foliage to our garden through on-site decomposition and recycling.
But if you want to save the step of gathering the leaves, one of the best things you can do for the nutrition of your lawn is to chop them up with a mulching mower and leave them in place. It is important to do this often, in light layers, or you can create clumps that will actually stifle the lawn. Be particularly careful of areas that have been freshly seeded. A combination of mulching the early and late light layers and composting the biggest drifts works well. A small electric leaf chopper can reduce the time and space needed to store the material as it ages.
Mid-November is a great time to give your lawn a late feeding. Pete Hitch, head turf specialist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, recommends a balanced fertilizer with a 3-1-2 ratio. He uses 12-4-8 at a rate of ½ to ¾ of a pound per 1,000 square feet. Please remember, especially with fertilizer, more is not better. When you add too much, it can burn your lawn; be wasteful of energy to make, ship and spread the fertilizer; be expensive for your pocketbook; cause excess nitrogen to run off with winter rains; and cause real downstream nutrient problems (that Dead Zone thing in the Gulf, for instance). Over-feeding lawns by homeowners is a measurable source of domestic water pollution!
If you didn’t get around to aerating and seeding in October, it is too late now. It would be best to wait until mid-February and catch up between the snows.
Best of Both Worlds
Leaf season is a great time to re-define the edges of your lawn, which soften over time. Grass can move into beds, edges can wash out, and mulched beds may thin. Julie likes to take a D-handle flat spade to re-cut the edges, tossing the spoil into the beds or the compost pile. Autumn leaves can be chopped with a small electric or gas shredder and then spread as a bottom layer under fresh mulch. Chopping them up helps them decompose faster and prevents them from blowing back out onto the lawn.
Less is More
Our European-style of mown lawns has become a huge source of pollution and energy consumption. The clipped lawn, as we know it, was originated by grazing animals— sheep, to be precise. Now we do it all with power equipment. Lawn and garden engines are some of the dirtiest remaining in use. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of mowing helps to save our environment. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to convert your entire lawn to tall grass prairie; it just means that smaller lawns are better.
There are some great books at the Garden Gate Shop if you need more guidance. Do you still need a football field, or will a croquet course be enough? Where does the grass get too thin to look good underneath trees? Is there a wet patch that would be better if planted with bog plants? Outline new bed edges with landscape spray paint or a garden hose to see how it looks. Remember, the smoother the lines are, the easier it will be to mow. Your teenager will appreciate it.
Smoke in the Autumn Skies
Your childhood memories might include the pungent fragrance of burning leaves, a local custom long outlawed for air quality reasons. We didn’t know then about greenhouse gases, but were quick to figure out the airborne particulates issues. Anyone with asthma or inhalant allergies is happy this practice has been banned. One friend, looking for moments of connection to a childhood long gone, still casts a handful of autumn leaves into her fireplace for one quick whiff of nostalgia. For me, those first fall fireplace scenes are now s’mores with hot, toasted marshmallows and chocolate bars on graham crackers. Bring on the skewers!
Kemper Center Gardening Help
The shortcut address, www.GardeningHelp.org, will take you to the Missouri Botanical Garden Kemper Center gardening help homepage. Just type your search word (compost, soil test) into the box at the top of the Gardening Help page and detailed instructions will pop up.