By Kelly Rondeau

The smell of autumn permeates the air. The cool, crisp weather signals fall’s annual crimson-colored foliage. For many an avid lawn keeper, the harvest season often means returning to the never-ending chore of raking and bagging leaves, then setting them at curbside for the weekly garbage haul-off. But stop right there.

Leaves are packed full of nutrients! Under normal growing conditions — with varied values, based on the source and condition of each tree — leaves are jam-packed with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, chloride, boron, iron, sodium, copper, and zinc. To simply rake and bag them up, only to be hauled off to the garbage landfill is a total waste of nature’s vast supply of rich nutrients, perfect for replenishing the soil.

So how do you go green in the fall? Start the process by not throwing away your leaves. There are alternatives. Mowing leaves, then mulching, and composting are the most effective way to reuse and recycle leaf mixtures. In addition, leaves can be used for overall soil improvement, directly working them into garden and flowerbed soils by tilling them in.

Master Gardener Beth Finlay, of Berks County, Pa., educated through the Penn State University Master Gardener Program, is an avid-promoter of mulching and composting autumn’s treasures.

“Rake to get the leaves off of the perennial beds; rake them onto the lawn, then mow both the leaves and the lawn together, which results in a perfect compost mix. This is an ideal mix; ready to place into the compost bin,” Finlay says.

Recycling leaves may seem like additional work, but Finlay drives the point home about these techniques: “Look, (before going green) you’re already doing all the work; you’re raking, bagging and hauling the bags to curbside. All you’re really doing differently is placing the mulched mixtures into a compost pile or taking them to a facility, it’s just a different process, and it’s extremely simple. After a while, it becomes automatic. It just makes more sense.”

“For lighter leaf fall, fine leaves are a good source of nitrogen and great for placing back into the soil,” Finlay explains. “But in Pennsylvania, we suggest using only a finer mixture of leaf mulch, because heavy leaves are too much, and can smother the ground. If your leaf fall is heavy, the fall rains and then snow, will compact the leaves and kill the grass beneath it. So mulch in the fall.”

For those who do have really light leaf fall, recycling is much easier. “In fine form, a leaf and lawn mixture that’s just been mowed, can be left on the lawn,” Finlay says. “If it’s in fine form, it will get down in between the blades of grass and incorporate into the soil; feeding it and supplying it with nutrition.”

This type of fine mixture can additionally be applied in a 3 to 6 inch layer around the base of trees and shrubs, and a 2 to 3 inch mulch mixture can be placed in annual perennial flowerbeds, for a beneficial source of nutrients.