Forget the rake and mulch your leaves into the lawn

It's the rare New Englander who doesn't appreciate autumn in the region. The brisk mornings, beautiful foliage, crackly leaves on woodland paths, and fresh apple cider all make for a wonderful season.

On the other hand, homeowners may be apt to forget about these benefits when it comes time to rake the lawn. Gathering fallen leaves for disposal can be a time-consuming chore, made all the more difficult if strong winds or playful children upset a carefully arranged pile.

Getting leaves off the grass is typically a good idea. Rebecca Finneran, writing for the Michigan State University Extension, says a mat of fallen leaves can block sunlight and inhibit turf growth. This problem becomes especially prevalent when neglected leaves get wet or further smothered by winter snowfall.

Thankfully, most homeowners can set the rake aside and mulch fallen leaves into the grass using nothing more than a lawn mower. You can also use leaves to improve a compost pile.

When you run a mower over the fallen leaves, they will be shredded into tiny pieces that fall between the blades of grass. The grass continues to benefit from the sunlight, while the leaves improve the quality of the soil. The University of Minnesota Extension says the decomposing leaf matter will help to add nutrients to the soil, retain moisture, and moderate the soil's temperature.

Since they add a natural complement of nutrients to the lawn, you may not even need to add fertilizer in the spring to keep your grass looking nice. Finneran says mulched leaves can also prevent the growth of weeds such as crabgrass and dandelions.

To chop up fallen leaves, set your mower at the highest setting. Many mowers can handle leaf layers up to six inches thick, although push mowers will require some more effort. Although the shredded leaves will be noticeable once you complete the mowing, wind and rain will eventually help them down to the soil.

Although a conventional mower blade is adequate for mulching leaves, you can also consider special attachments for this purpose. Jennifer Noonan, writing for the home improvement professional Bob Vila, says serrated blades can mulch leaves more effectively.

The mower's bag should be removed when you are shredding leaves to mulch them into the yard. However, you can also make a pass with the bag attached if the leaves are particularly thick. The collected leaf particles and grass clippings will make an excellent mulch for your garden beds.

There are some drawbacks to mulching leaves into the lawn with a mower. As leaves begin to fall more rapidly, you may have to make at least a couple of passes, one to shred the leaves and another at a lower setting to cut the grass and make sure the leaf pieces aren't too large. Alternatively, you may have to mow more frequently to keep the amount of leaves on the grass from getting out of control.

Running a mower over dry leaves can send a good deal of particulate matter into the air. Judith Evans, writing for SFGate, recommends wearing a dust mask to avoid inhaling this material and goggles to keep it out of your eyes. This problem will not occur when mowing wet leaves, but they are more likely to clog the mower in this condition.

The University of Minnesota Extension says you should not mulch diseased leaves, since these diseases can survive the winter and cause new infections in the spring. These leaves should be destroyed instead.

Fallen leaves, or excess foliage left over from mulching leaves into your lawn, can easily be composted. The leaves are rich in carbon, so they should be mixed with nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings and food scraps to produce the best compost. The ratio of nitrogen-rich materials to leaves should be about two to one. Shredding the leaves before adding them to the compost will help them break down faster.

If you prefer to rake up your leaves and dispose of them, you should not simply throw them in the trash. In fact, leaves are considered a mandatory recycling item in Connecticut. Towns will schedule regular lawn waste pickups throughout the autumn.

Leaves cannot be placed in a plastic garbage bag. Instead, they should be raked into biodegradable paper bags. These bags are inexpensive, usually costing less than $2 for a bag that can hold more than 30 gallons of foliage.

Do not dispose of leaves by burning them. While homeowners can get a permit to burn brush, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says it is illegal to destroy leaves by open burning. In addition to releasing harmful pollutants into your neighborhood's air, this process carries the risk that a fire will burn out of control and damage your property.

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