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Composting is an excellent way to deal with yard waste while keeping the leaves out of the dump and providing wonderful fertilizer. (Photo submitted by Franklin County Extension Office)

Fall is a beautiful time in Kentucky gardens, but it can also be a messy time. Tree leaves turn from green to vibrant fall colors and then drop, creating big piles. Then there are the leaves and spent shoots from our flower beds.

The way we address our yard waste can have a significant impact on our gardens and on the environment. Gardeners commonly rake up and bag leaves to haul away to yard waste dumps or municipal compost piles.

This option, while tidy, uses a lot of energy, both yours and the energy to transport the leaves and mixed garden waste.  An alternative is to mulch leaves and yard waste. You could use the bountiful resource to enrich your lawn and garden, while creating less waste and air pollution. 

A very simple technique with leaves is to rake them into a line and mow over them with your lawn mower. The mower will chop the leaves into pieces small enough to fall between the blades of grass in your lawn. The chopped leaves will break down out of sight, provide nutrients to your lawn and improve the quality of your soil.

For larger items like spent flower stalks, composting is a simple, easy and environmentally friendly option. Done properly, it produces no odor and provides a generous amount of nutrient-rich organic compost for your garden, which reduces or eliminates the need to buy fertilizer. Composting also eliminates the need to transport garden waste, making composting a triple-win situation for your garden, wallet and the environment.

The speed of compost production is influenced by the size of the material placed in the bin, so the more you can chop up the garden debris, the quicker you will have usable compost. Many options for compost bin design and construction are well suited to any location and budget.

Using leaves as mulch has many benefits. The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and insulates plants from extreme winter temperatures. The decomposed leaves become an excellent conditioner for warming spring soil, helping to attract worms and other beneficial microorganisms. 

Adam Leonberger is a Franklin County extension agent for horticulture.

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