Human Journey

How to Get Rid of Fall Leaves Sustainably

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On trees, fall leaves wow us with their eye-pleasing palette. On the ground, though, a layer of leaves can smother your grass and over time render your lawn lifeless.

The solution used to be easy: Just drag out the rake, make a giant leaf pile, and either burn the waste or dump it at the curbside for the garbage collectors.

But now, in most places, such methods are illegal. That’s because landfill space is shrinking, and burning leaves can be dangerous to our health.

When burned, leaves release pollutants, such as particulate matter—tiny particles that can lodge deep in your lungs—hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide.

All these substances cause irritation to the respiratory system, and hydrocarbons contain cancer-causing ingredients, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Not to mention that setting a big pile of dry plant matter on fire can increase the risk of your house—or your neighbor’s—catching on fire.

So where does that leave us? Your best option may be mulching, which you can accomplish with a mulching mower. (See some green mower options on the Consumer Reports Web site.)

Leaf mulch is a good choice for garden beds, especially since it’s less likely to blow around, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. And a 1999 Purdue University study found that leaf-mulched soil has more bacteria, which improves the soil’s quality.

Leaf mulch also gives your lawn a leg up: The state conservation department advises applying a 0.75 inch (1.9 centimeter) layer.

In the winter, you can also cover the bare soil in your vegetable garden with leaf mulch to shield hardy veggies like carrots and kale from the elements.

Eventually leaf mulch will turn to compost, but you can speed up with the process by making your own compost pile with leaf waste. Composting doesn’t pose any health or fire risks, and coating your lawn with composted leaves and nitrogen-rich grass clippings can be a powerful fertilizer.

Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin, and moisten dry materials as they are added. The whole rundown on what you need for a compost pile can be found on the EPA’s composting site.

If you’re not keen to compost yourself, there are at least 2,000 communities in the U.S. that have yard-waste collection programs for composting, or will allow you drop off leaves yourself, according to the EPA. (San Francisco has even passed a law making composting mandatory.) Check with your local recycling coordinator for more details.

Christine Dell’Amore

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Related:

–“Green” your lawn with easy organic lawn care tips.

–Watch how to turn your trash into garden-boosting treasure.

–Get a fertilizer buying guide.

Photograph courtesy Brian Tobin/My Shot

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.

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