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Stop Environmental Pollution of Burning Autumn Leaves-Use Them Instead

Updated on January 2, 2023
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Cygnet Brown is a high school and middle school substitute teacher. She is the author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.

Negative Effects of Leaf Burning Pollution

The negative effects of burning leaves affect one out of every six people. Eighty-five percent of the airborne particles from leaf smoke are inhaled deep into the lungs and can cause physical or chemical damage. The smoke travels and affects more than just the one doing the leaf burning or even the immediate neighborhood. During leaf-burning season, more individuals are hospitalized for respiratory illnesses. During this time individuals require more medications. In addition, mortality increases.

Decreased visibility from leaf burning increases the potential for personal injuries, property damage, and cost to the fire department. Children are at greater risk of getting burned when near leaf-burning events. Fires can get out of control resulting in grass and forest fires. Even if you are not personally affected, leaf-burning fires mean can more auto, health, and property insurance claims thereby increasing your insurance costs. Leaf burning is not the benign activity that so many of us always thought it was. It can be as bad or worse for the population as secondhand cigarette smoke.

Leaves, Use Them, Don't Abuse Them!

Leaves make the best mulch

Most municipalities have annual leaf pick where you can either rake leaves out to the curb or where you can bag them and they will dispose of them that way. But why do that when there is no need to get rid of those leaves in the first place?

Leaves are the best mulch there is. They are the perfect mulching material. My guess is that if you were to use all of the ways that I recommend using leaves, you will be asking your neighbors for their leaves. They might look at you funny, but they will happily give you all they have. They might even pay you to take them. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake that some gardeners make and give your leaves to the city to recycle and then buy them back as leaf mold in the spring. (In case you didn’t know, leaf mold is slightly decomposed leaves.)

Save your money both on leaf mold and mulch by keeping your leaves. Use them as mulch to protect your soil first in the winter and then use them in the spring as one of the best weed barriers in existence. Why create more work for yourself? Save your work, save your money and use the leaves on your own property.

Pile your leaves in the vegetable garden that has been vacated by summer crops. Protect any fall vegetables with leaves. Mound up leaves around plants when frost or freezes threaten. They work as well as sheets, blankets, or cloches on established plantings and are easier to handle.

Pile leaves around berry bushes, and fruit trees, and use them as insulation around flowering shrubs. This will both help protect the plants from the winter weather, and will also keep them from flowering too soon in the spring because it keeps them from warming too early. Early frosts can kill swelling flower buds thereby reducing the number of fruit. When mulching fruit trees, don’t pile leaves up around the trunk, but instead pile leaves out one foot from the trunks and out to the driplines. (What is a dripline? Imagine the tree canopy as a giant roof and that the water rolls off that roof. The outer edge of that canopy where the water would roll off is the dripline.)

Do not place leaves close to the trunk because rabbits or mice like to burrow down into the leaves. If the leaves are too close to the tree, the rodents are apt to gnaw on the bark. In addition, insects that may be harbored in the leaves may also decide that they are hungry enough to eat your fruit tree bark.

If the look of leaves has you turning up your nose, lay a thick layer of leaves and cover them with a thinner layer of your favorite mulch. The idea that oak leaves will not break down is a myth that I have proved in my garden over and over again. They just take a little longer to decompose than other lighter mulches. My gardens have always been rich in black soil complemented by truckloads of leaves that are primarily oak leaves. Contrary to popular belief they do not acidify the soil either, you just need to be certain that you have plenty of nitrogen in the form of manure to break the leaves down into rich, dark soil.

Use Leaves as Livestock Bedding

Here is another place where leaves are great to use. Use them as bedding material for your livestock and save the more expensive hay for the livestock feed. As the leaves are falling from the trees, add them to your stable, barns, and chicken house. Cover the floors with them. In the spring these leaves will have held lots of animal urine as well as manure. Use a flat shovel and the leaves will have created a sheet that easily separates the composting manure from the floor. You can easily place it in your composting bin for further decomposition as well as assist with composting other household and yard wastes.

Leaves are especially good bedding in the chicken house. The chickens love scratching in the leaves. They will also eat any bugs or bug pupae that may be in the leaves. For this reason, it is also a good idea to allow the chickens out into the garden area during warmer winter days so that they can scratch in the leaves and reduce the number of insects making the garden their winter home.

Use Leaves in Your Compost

During the growing season, layer leaves into your compost. One of the big contributions that leave make to the soil is that it is high in carbon. This carbon is carbon that the leaves pull out of the air to aid in photosynthesis. The same carbon that scientists say is causing climate change.

One of the biggest complaints that most people have about compost is the smell. The reason compost smells exist for two reasons, the pile was anaerobic and you just exposed it to air or you have too much nitrogen (manure or rotting garbage) in the compost and you need to add more brown carbon-rich materials and leaves are brown carbon-rich material.

To get rid of the smell, turn the compost and add equal parts of leaves to compost. Lay down leaves, pile on some compost, lay down more leaves layer of compost and so until the entire pile is turned. End up with a layer of leaves. The bottom of the pile will likely be more “finished” than the top, so you shouldn’t have to add anything else to the pile. The pile should smell like fresh earth. If not, top the pile with several shovels full of garden soil. If you keep plenty of leaves in your compost, you will never have a compost pile that stinks.

Not only do leaves provide the brown material for the compost, but they also provide nutrients from deep in the subsoil. These nutrients are brought up through the tree roots, up the trucks and into the branches, and to the leaves where they are stored until released back into the compost and then into the topsoil of your garden.

Safe Easy Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Leave Burning

Recognize Autumn Leaves as a Renewable Resource

Even if you do not have the time or the energy to rake and utilize your leaves in other ways, mulching your leaves into your lawn is a much better way to dispose of them. The more you shred the leaves, the more quickly your yard can utilize the nutrients supplied by the leaves.

Burning leaves is counter-intuitive. Bagging and putting our leaves out for the city municipalities seems unnecessary. We should be making use of the valuable resource that we are blessed with every autumn season. Autumn leaves are there to protect the soil from the extreme winter weather. They were created to pull carbon out of the air so that when the leaves break down, the plants can utilize the nutrients the leaves provide. Isn't it time we began seeing autumn leaves, not as a bane of the autumn months, but rather as the renewable resource that they are?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Cygnet Brown


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