With three simple methods, you can turn fantastic foliage into fabulous fertilizer.

If money began falling from the sky, your neighbors would probably think you quite odd if you raked the bills off your lawn and put them in bags for the trash collectors to haul away. But each fall, legions of homeowners charge into their yards with rakes in hand to do just that, throwing away the most valuable resource their yards produce--leaves.

Besides providing trees with the energy they need to grow in the summer, leaves also supply an entire forest with what it requires to thrive in the winter--fresh nutrients. Without a constant supply, most plants can't reach their full potentials and the soil will eventually become exhausted. Luckily you can take advantage of fallen leaves to keep your soil fertile and make your plants happy.

Let 'Em Lie
Using foliage as a mulch is probably the easiest way to fertilize your yard. Simply letting the leaves of oaks or maples decompose where they've fallen or raking them into specific planting beds ensures a replenishing supply of nitrogen and potassium to the soil. While the leaves themselves may not meet all your plants' nutrient requirements, they will decrease the need to add soil conditioners and organic mulches. Don't let the leaves build up too high around a tree's base, as this can cause rotting or insect damage. A good mulch doesn't need to be more than 3 inches thick. Also, prevent leaves from covering up grass for more than a few days, because the blades require sunlight for photosynthesis and growth.

Break 'Em Down
Another option is to rake up the leaves and put them on a compost pile, where they can mix with other decaying plant materials and provide next year's fertilizer. There are a number of advantages to composting leaves, such as creating a balanced supply of fertilizer and encouraging beneficial soil bacteria. Once leaves are properly composted, they can be reapplied to beds to ensure your plants have all necessary nutrients, as well as moisture-conserving mulch.

Cut 'Em Up
The final option is to use a mulching mower or leaf blower to help foliage break down on its own. On turf lawns, a few passes with a mulching mower will make leaves small enough so they don't affect the grass blades and will return nutrients to the soil.

A blower with a vacuum option can be a great help in getting leaves out of a bed or off a lawn. Most vacuum blowers will also chop the leaves, making it simple to add them to a compost pile or spread them as mulch. While leaf blowers can be helpful when clearing large areas, they tend to stir up dust in the air and can lower the air quality. Limit their use to days without smog problems.

Use these easy, inexpensive ways to get nutrients back into the soil and keep your yard looking great throughout the year.

Tips for Mulching Leaves on a Lawn

  • A sharp rotary blade mower will pulverize leaves best.
  • Chop foliage enough so that grass still receives full sun. Three or four passes with a mulching mower may be needed.
  • Mulched leaves don't increase the thatch layer enough to harm the grass.

This article is from the November 2003 issue of Southern Living.