Save Time and Money on Fall Leaves

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Tompkins Weekly      11-7-16

By Adam Michaelides

Sometimes it can be a joy to be out in the crisp, fall air raking freshly fallen leaves. Sometimes it can be a burden. How do you maximize the benefits of collecting leaves while minimizing the costs?

Of course, it all depends. It depends on where you live. It depends on if you maintain a yard and garden. And it depends on your interests. What works for one resident may not work for another. One size does not fit all.

The aim of this article is to provide ideas and resources to help just about anyone.

stacked-leaf-bags-high-resTypical costs associated with leaves are: (1) time to rake them and (2) money for purchasing bags and yard tags (City of Ithaca). Leaves can be a valuable resource. They are basically unprocessed organic material. When they break down, leaves add organic matter to the soil. This benefits whatever is growing in that soil like grass, flowers, veggies, shrubs, trees, etc.

Some people NEVER rake! One easy option for handling leaves is to mow them and leave them on the lawn to decompose. This only works if the shredded bits fall down below the blades of grass and do not smother the grass. If you have too many leaves, you may need to gather the mowed leaves and use them as mulch around trees and shrubs. Don’t add more than a couple of inches, and never put the mulch right up against tree trunks.

Another way to use raked leaves is to pile them thickly (12-24 inches) on top of existing garden beds. Doing this protects the soil over the winter and prevents early-spring weed growth. If you are concerned about leaves blowing away, you can put a thin ‘thatch’ of straw or some other heavier mulch on top of the leaves. I mulch my garden beds with leaves, and then the following spring I move the ones that didn’t break down to my compost area.

You can also use raked leaves on your property to create new garden beds. Sheet mulching saves the back-breaking labor of removing sod and turning soil. First cover the ground with thick layers of cardboard and newspaper to smother existing plants and weeds. Then add a thin (1-2 inches) layer of “greens” such as food scraps, and then cover with leaves. Keep adding alternating layers of food scraps and leaves. The mound will break down to create a rich, new garden bed.

Still without incurring the expense of bags, you can corral all your leaves using a simple ring of wire fencing. A 6-foot pile of leaves will break down dramatically over the winter and you will produce “leaf mold” for use in the garden. You can also make leaf mold in bags if you want to bag your leaves, or use bags of leaves from others.

If you compost at home (or aspire to), you will need “browns” year-round to cover your food scraps and other fresh, moist materials. Fall leaves are free and abundant. Most home composters will need a bag of leaves every one or two months. By composting food scraps instead of sending them to the dump, you may save money on trash tags, and your trash will stay “cleaner” and require less of your time. Collect leaves when they are dry and keep them dry so you can still use them during the winter freeze.

What if you can’t leave your leaves on the lawn, and have no use for leaves on your property? You can still save time and money by giving your leaves to others.

“Leaf thieves” are gardening or composting enthusiasts who stop by and fill their cars or trucks with leaf bags. Simply leave your raked leaves in bags near the curb and watch them disappear! If they don’t, add a yard tag and put them on the curb (City of Ithaca), or drop them off for free at the CCE Leaf Swap, or at the Recycling and Solid Waste Center.

The Tompkins County Solid Waste Division accepts yard waste in cans or bags for free. (There’s a fee of $40/ton for larger loads.) Drop yard waste at the RSWC on Commercial Ave in Ithaca.

In 2015, 500 bags of leaves were dropped off at the CCE Leaf Swap and then picked up by gardeners and composters. This year clean, bagged leaves may be dropped off from November 7 – 19. Leaf bags and finished compost may be picked up between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 19. For more information about the Leaf Swap, please visit or call (607) 272-2292.

Whatever your situation, hopefully dealing with fall leaves can be relatively simple, and low-cost. And you or others can use them to create more healthy yards and gardens.

Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for the Compost Education Program at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension and a trained Master Composter from the class of 2000.

Photo by Adam Michaelides.

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