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Leaves: Use 'em, Don't Burn 'em!

Q. Recently, we purchased some land for our horses. It has a large number of oak trees on it, but very little grass. Do we:
1. Burn off the leaves now and plant seed in the spring?
2. Burn the leaves in the spring and plant seed a few days later?
3. Burn the leaves off now and plant seed a few days later?
    ---Cameron in SW Missouri
A. None of the above, oh Pyro of the Show-me State! Never, ever, ever burn leaves! To use your numbering system:
1) It is a waste of nature's finest gardening resource.
2) It contributes to global warming. The last thing our poor planet needs is more people setting stuff on fire for no good reason.
3) The abundant smoke produced by such conflagrations is a nasty thing to do to folks downwind.

Yeah, yeah—I know; you think its 'romantic' to burn leaves in the fall. The smell awakens distant memories of things like winning football games and torrid October romances. If you could remember those events clearly, you'd recall that neither the games nor the dates went nearly as well as your 'haze of memory' has deceived you into believing.

The reality of burning leaves is that their 'romantic' smoke heats up the planet, sends asthmatics rushing to the hospital in droves, and stinks up the downwind homes of neighbors who have gone out for a nice hike and left their windows open on a glorious fall day to give the house a nice airing out before winter. Thank you very much for replacing that clean crisp air with a burning smell that will haunt them until May.

Rake the leaves off to the side, shred them up, and use them as mulch in all your gardens. Or shred them up and mix them with some of that horse manure to make GREAT compost! Or rake them off to the side and just let them be; you'll get excellent compost in a few years whether you want it or not—so there!

Back to the grass. You could try putting some seed down this year after tilling things up, but its getting purty darn late in the season. I might wait and plan for next fall, when you can till the soil in early August, spread seed mid-month and have a good stand of grass growing before that year's leaf fall.

But you need to realize that growing grass in Snow White's old forest is a tough sell under any circumstances. So before you do anything other than rake those leaves off to the side, read this previous Question of the Week on the challenges and limitations of growing grass under trees to see what you're getting into.

Q. I'm looking at all these leaves falling onto my grass. I know that I could turn them into compost with a little effort, but I have a mulching mower and would prefer to just mow over the leaves and let them feed my grass that way. I have a feeling that you, like my husband, are going to tell me it won't work. But I'm hoping it will.

    ---Jenn from New Joisey
A. Guess again, Jersey Girl! Mikey likes it! Mowing leaves with a dedicated mulching mower WILL give your lawn a nice feeding. And the microbes on those leaves will get down to the soil line, where they'll help break down any thatch. You can do this repeatedly as the leaves continue to fall; just don't cut the grass any shorter than three inches.

Q: Mike: I have been mulching leaves into my lawn for years and the effect has been wonderful. I continue to mow as long as the leaves keep falling, often way past the time my neighbors have put their mowers away. I find that with each mowing the material breaks down even further, eventually reducing things to a powder. In some years, I've used the bag on my mower to get all the mulched leaves up and bagged for my compost pile instead—to see if there was any visible difference in the spring vs. when I mulch the leaves into the lawn. My "tests" indicate that the lawn does much better with the pulverized leaves; a process I call "lawnposting." I live near people whose houses are surrounded by trees, and I see them laboring to get their leaves into bags all fall. If these people would just try 'lawnposting' instead, I guarantee they'd be impressed with their grass becomes the following spring.

    ---Scott in Muncie, IN
A. Thanks Scott! If we got more emails like yours, I could cut back on my typing!

Q. Mike: Why isn't there a spreadable product to help break down leaves, instead of us having to rake up these wonderful little powerhouses? I have composted for years to create topsoil, but am thinking that there has to be a way of getting all of these leaves to work for me in the pasture instead of removing them every year. HELP!

    ---Duane in Upper Marlboro MD
A. There is, Duane—as Jersey Jenn is hoping and Muncie Scott already knows, it's called a lawnmower! Mowing those leaves into a nicely high cut lawn will feed the grass and improve the microbial life in your soil.

And don't insult my favorite substance, compost, by comparing it to "topsoil". Compost is The Bomb, man!

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