No one can deny that one of the brighter aspects of autumn is the abundance of color. We who live in the northern states are blessed to have the changing of the seasons. I am always sad to see the current one go, but anxious for the next one to come. Best of these for me is autumn. I love the crisp days and nights, and especially the colorful autumn foliage.
I still think that leaves turning color in autumn should be one of the wonders of the world. Just saying. The process that causes this is pretty amazing. In a nutshell, leaves are nature’s food factories. Plants take water in through their roots and take carbon dioxide from the air. They then use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose. They emit oxygen and use the glucose for food for energy for themselves.
Photosynthesis, which literally means “putting together with chlorophyll,” is this process, which plants do day after day. Chlorophyll is the green color in the leaves. The amount of light in a day is what triggers this whole process. During autumn, as the days get shorter, the plants “know” it is time to get ready for winter.
When there is not enough light or water for photosynthesis to occur, plants rest and live off the food they have stored. As they begin to shut down food-making, the chlorophyll disappears. As the green fades, the yellows and oranges appear. They have actually been there all along, but have been covered by the chlorophyll. Reds and purples are actually made in the fall after photosynthesis stops. The sunlight and cool nights cause the glucose to turn to the red color. Brown hues come from the waste left in the leaves.
Sunny autumn days and cool nights give us this brilliant color show. However, after the show, leaves fall and then the chore starts of what to do with all the fallen leaves. I have always liked the job of raking leaves and burning them in the fall. There is just something about the smell of them. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling.
However, there is a better way, both for your back and your wallet. You can rake them, blow them, vacuum them, ignore them, or mulch them. Mulching is clearly the better choice. It not only saves time, but also money. It is definitely faster and easier than raking and gives your back a break. Yes, raking is good exercise, but after going over a whole yard, most backs begin to feel the stress, not to mention the blisters you’ll get on your hands.
Shredded leaves control certain weeds and also provide soil with much needed winter nutrients. The best part is that you do not need a special mower, rather just buy mulching blades for your current mower. Mulching blades are serrated blades that chop leaves into fragments as tiny as confetti. As the leaves decompose, they act as natural fertilizer and as a weed control agent.
Mulching works because microorganisms that live in the soil break down organic material like leaves. Worms also play a crucial role in this process. Roots of some grasses like fescue grow slowly in fall and winter, and the decaying action of mulched leaves provide vital nutrients. Mulching keeps soil warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Studies by Michigan State University students show that homeowners can attain a nearly 100% decrease in dandelions and crabgrass after mulching leaves for only 3 years. A typical lawn needs up to 4 pounds of nitrogen annually. Recycling grass clippings back into the lawn can account for up to one pound of a lawn’s nitrogen requirement. Thus, the combination of mulched leaves and grass clippings can add up to less fertilizer required to have a luscious spring and summer lawn free of dandelions and crabgrass. Oak leaves have been in the middle of a controversy as to whether to mulch them or not because of their acidity. However, recent studies suggest that their PH balance is neutral and not acidic, making them perfect mulching candidates too.
Fall is the optimum time to mulch. Many folks like to wait until spring when they begin their yard cleanup. A buildup of leaves on a lawn turns to a soggy mess under winter’s rains and snows, and the leaves also block sunlight and air from reaching the grass. This lack of air and circulation can cause turf diseases or smother grass out completely. Also, if you put the mulched leaves on landscaped beds in the fall they will biodegrade almost completely. In spring, the decomposition process will compete with plants for nutrients.
Turf grass specialists at Michigan State University show that up to 6 inches of leaves can be mulched at one time. That takes care of a lot of leaves in a hurry. Even so, there are still people who, for one reason or another, prefer not to mulch. This isn’t always bad. If you prefer to either rake or blow or vacuum your leaves, you can still give them a second use.
Put the leaves in a pile that won’t be disturbed totally, but also where they will get wet occasionally and where they can decompose naturally. After two years you will have real and crumbly compost, with your pile shrinking to half its original size. This compost will be ready for flower beds or shrubs. What’s better than free fertilizer from something that was originally a waste product?
Many people grumble about the falling leaves in autumn. Yes, they do cause work, but if you choose wisely, they can be repurposed into a rich nutrient for next year’s crop. I will always love the smell of burning leaves, but mulching makes so much more sense. Perhaps this year I will mulch; next year’s crops will thank me. But I will also save a small pile to burn. Some traditions are just too hard to break.