Although we Virginians love our autumn foliage—those vibrant reds, oranges and yellows!—we are all left to wonder, year after year: Just how are we going to deal with all of those leaves once they descend and cover our lawns and flowerbeds?
Although a potentially daunting task, managing fallen leaves is important because the leaf cover can act like a giant Ziploc bag on our yards, depleting the landscape of oxygen. Prompt removal of leaves is essential to the health of your yard, and there are several ways to approach this task. Why not consider something new this season?
The age-old option is to rake your leaves, but there are particular techniques that will make the task easier. Using the correct type of rake is key, so make sure you are using a leaf rake with a broad head and flexible tips. Traditional garden rakes (the kind with shorter, firm, metal tines) can cause unnecessary damage to grass and other vegetation. Timing is everything when raking leaves—you want to start when the majority of the foliage has fallen to avoid unnecessary raking, without letting them sit for too long and damaging your lawn. A good rule of thumb is to rake three times in the season (think Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas). Use a plastic tarp or sheet to make moving the leaves less of a chore.
Before gathering the leaves, decide where they will go after you collect them—bags, compost pile, curb—which may be determined by your city or county regulations. Once you begin, rake into several small piles instead of one large pile so that you do not have to move the leaves farther than is necessary (unless, of course, you are trying to create the ultimate leaf-jumping pile for the children). When raking, pick a central point to rake toward, and be sure to use the entire rake (not just the tips) to move the leaves. These steps will increase efficiency and reduce your chances for injury. You should keep the rake at an angle that is more perpendicular to the ground (anywhere from 65 to 85 degrees), and generate the majority of the power from your legs. Be sure to listen to your body while raking, and treat yourself to a hot cider break every once in awhile. Also, be aware of critters like insects and snakes that may have taken up residence in the soft cover of leaves. It’s a good idea to wear long pants and gloves while raking.
Another great solution for leaves is mulching, which involves shredding them with a lawnmower. A mulching attachment can be purchased to properly mince the foliage, or you can take a few sweeps with the lawnmower placed on the highest setting.
Once the leaves are properly chopped and collected, they can be used as a healthy, protective winter mulch. Simply place a two- to three-inch layer around plants, but keep the mulch from touching stems and trunks to discourage pests. This fresh mulch can slowly decompose and release healthy nutrients into the ground, which will result in healthier plants, more wholesome soil and happier microorganisms (including worms, which aerate the dirt).
Mulch-mowing is perhaps the easiest solution for tackling fallen leaves, and your grass may thank you for it! Simply mow over the leaves with a lawnmower (once a week, as during a normal mowing season) until the foliage has finished descending. Use the highest setting on the mower (or a mulching attachment), and allow the mulch-mowed leaves to settle on the lawn. Your grass will be furnished with nutrients from the decomposing leaves all winter long, which will result in a lush lawn with fewer weeds the following spring and summer.
If you have been considering starting a compost pile, fall is the perfect season to start. Simply pick a location for composting, and place your raked leaves there. Dead leaves are considered “brown” material for a compost pile, to work in conjunction with “green” material such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings and weeds. Be sure to add some green materials to a beginning compost pile, and mix the pile every once in awhile for aeration. Conversely, it is more difficult to find brown compost materials in the summer months, so it is wise to save a bag or two of leaves to add to your compost pile when brown materials are hard to find. By letting it decompose all winter long, you will have fresh, healthy material to use for your spring plantings.
Burning is another alternative for discarding leaves, though it can be dangerous and must be done with the utmost care. The Virginia Department of Forestry does not allow burning from February 15 until April 30 of each year until after 4 p.m.; there are also strict laws about how to manage burning your leaves. Fred Turck, a fire prevention specialist with this department, advises that a quick check with your local sheriff and fire departments is wise before burning leaves. He also explains, “You cannot leave a fire unattended; you must stay with it while it is burning. Please use proper care and prevention and have a means of keeping the fire contained. Make small piles not large ones, and make sure it is something that you can manage.” He also stresses that dry piles of leaves are a danger. Ashes from fireplaces and stoves, if disposed of on these piles, can cause a dangerous wildfire, so always dispose of your ashes in a metal container.
Any fire can release harmful compounds into the air, and leaf fires are no exception. The smoke can be irritating, and the blaze itself can spark an inadvertent inferno that can destroy homes and forests.
Many of our local city and county governments offer solutions to help citizens with fall cleanup. Some areas provide landfills, and others offer gated collection centers. Many allow their residents to bag their leaves to be picked up, and others will “vacuum” leaves raked to the curb. Contacting your local government’s website is helpful in determining what your particular area offers in the way of leaf collection (see “Leaf Disposal at a Glance” for more information).
So, as you watch the Virginia landscape change from greens to golds and rusts, do not dread the impending descent of leaves. With so many options and future vegetative benefits, you are sure to find a solution that is right for you.
Leaf Disposal at a Glance
Rules, regulations and services regarding leaf collection and disposal vary around our region. Consult these resources, for more information.
• Amherst County Residents
No leaf collection service is offered, but leaves can be bagged as trash. www.countyofamherst.com
• Appomattox County Residents
Discard bagged or loose leaves at the landfill. www.appomattox.com
• Bedford County Residents
Leaves, brush and limbs can be taken to designated gated collection centers from October 15–November 15. www.co.bedford.va.us
• Campbell County Residents
Dispose of leaves by taking them to the Campbell County Landfill on Livestock Road. www.co.campbell.va.us
• Lynchburg City Residents
Loose leaf collection is available if leaves are raked to the curb and free of sticks and other large debris. Check local radio stations and newspapers for more information or see www.lynchburgva.gov.