New England is famed for its fall foliage — splendid red, yellow and orange canopies that give way to barren branches and the annual chore known as “fall cleanup.” For some homeowners, that means raking or blowing leaves and putting them into trash bags to be hauled off to landfills.
But conservationists, environmental groups and gardeners are urging everyone to leave the leaves where they are.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13% of the nation’s solid waste—a whopping 33 million tons a year.
Sealed in a landfill without enough oxygen, this organic matter doesn’t just decompose — it releases the greenhouse gas methane, a potent contributor to climate change. Solid-waste landfills are the largest US source of manmade methane — and that’s aside from the carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered blowers and trucks used in leaf disposal.
So what can you do with your pile of leaves instead?
“Putting leaves in the trash is a waste of a free resource,” said Gail Reynolds, Middlesex County UConn Master Gardener coordinator. “Leaves are a source of carbon and nitrogen. If you chop your leaves up with a mower you can put them in your garden and it’s a wonderful fertilizer and mulch.”
Using leaves as mulch – instead of sending them to the dump – recycles the nutrients you fed to your plants and trees the previous season, keeps organic waste nutrients local and your gardening efforts more naturally sustainable.
“You don’t have to go out and spend money on wood chips or mulch from a store,” Reynolds said.
The leaves also help protect the soil from evaporation, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, while also helping to prevent soil erosion, compacting, and “crusting” or the surface of the soil becoming dried and hard, which increases water runoff and keeps water from penetrating the soil.
“It creates a great cover for the soil which helps retain moisture,” Reynolds said. “It acts as a barrier between the cold air and snow while keeping nutrients in the soil.”
Compost is an organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow and allows matter to decay naturally creating nutrients.
While it is possible to just leave yard waste including leaves on the ground, experts say it is best to chop them up and put them in a compost pile with other materials including grass clippings, certain types of food waste and sticks and twigs.
There are generally two categories needed for a healthy and thriving compost pile: “browns” or materials such as dead leaves, branches, and twigs and “greens” or materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.
“Lawns are not natural,” Reynolds said. “Everything in this state wants to be a forest.
In the state’s forests, no one is raking or picking up leaves but the forest ground is lush and thriving with several plant species. This is because the forest decomposes the leaves from the trees and recycles those nutrients to grow and thrive, according to Reynolds.
While several towns in Connecticut offer curbside leaf pickup and composting, Reynolds warns that if composting is not done correctly in can have a negative side effect.
“Some towns compost just leaves and weeds,” Reynolds said. “They then allow residents to pick up the free mulch it creates in the spring. The issue with that is that it usually doesn’t get hot enough to kill weed seeds. If you use that compost you can unintentionally bring weeds or invasive species into your garden.”
Reynolds said that taking yard waste off your lawn can allow invasive species or plants to spread.
“Someone could take their ashe branches or twigs to the town compost which could have the invasive emerald ash borer larvae on them,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said creating a compost pile in your own backyard reduces the chances of spreading invasive species, lowers your carbon footprint, and re-introduces healthy nutrients into your own soil.
A brush shelter is simply a habitat on your yard that provides a dense and low-to-the-ground habitat made of leaves, sticks and twigs that acts as a natural forest floor for several different insects and animals including salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles , toads, shrews, earthworms, and butterflies.
Many butterfly and moth species lay pupae in leaf litter, so throwing away leaves each fall may be getting rid of these beneficial insects too. Butterfly and moth caterpillars are a critically important food source for birds in the spring when they are feeding their babies. addition, butterflies are natural pollinators that provide critical pollination to several varieties of garden plants each spring, according to DEEP.
Experts say it’s important to not use materials that contain toxic substances including pressure-treated lumber or posts, creosote railroad ties, lead-painted surfaces and tires.
If you’re not able to compost in your own yard, some area farms allow residents to drop off their leaves to be made into mulch and fertilizer.
New Milford Farms was established in 1991 as the first state-permitted composting facility to compost food byproduct waste from Nestle USA operations.
The farm, located in New Milford, offers a punch card to residents for $17 and is good for up to 14 punches.
Five Things You Need To Know
We’re providing the latest coronavirus coverage in Connecticut each weekday morning.
“Each punch is good for two bags of leaves, so for $17 you get to drop off 28 bags of leaves” said Sidney Whitman, quality assurance supervisor for New Milford Farms. “This is our busiest week of the year in terms of leaves. It’s been pretty steady for people coming to drop them off.”
The facility recycles tree trimmings, brushes, debris from land clearing and grass and leaves to make organic soil and mulches.
Reynolds and Whitman said anyone who may want to drop leaves off at local farms should call ahead first to make sure the farm takes them.
“Not every farm has the capacity to compost,” Reynolds said. “So make sure you call ahead.”
For questions on composting, gardening, invasive species or pollinators, residents are encouraged to contact their local UConn Master Gardener Extension office for free tips, help and information.
“Anyone can call their local office. We have one in every county in the state,” Reynolds said. “We love plant identification and will give you science-based and proven tips to help your garden thrive.”
Stephen Underwood can be reached at email@example.com