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10 worthy reasons not to throw away your fall leaves

Pleasures lie thickest where no pleasures seem:

There’s not a leaf that falls upon the ground

But holds some joy of silence or of sound,

Some spirits begotten of a summer dream.

— Samuel Laman Blanchard, “Hidden Joys,” 1828

When I was a young girl, someone told me that if I saw a flurry of leaves rise up suddenly from the ground, I was catching happy spirits dancing with the leaves. It’s an image I’ve held onto ever since, making leaf fall in autumn even more magical.

But what to do with all those leaves once they’ve fallen? As I kid, after I jumped into the leaf piles, I had to bag them up. That’s when I wished those spirits would come and help. Today, I know there are much better uses for fall leaves than raking and bagging them. Here are 10 worthy reasons not to throw away your fall leaves:

1. Avoid using single-use plastics. Autumn is the time of year when neighborhood streets are lined with plastic bags filled with fallen leaves. Even if the leaves are recycled, the plastic bags often end up in the landfill. It took only a few minutes to fill up the bag, but it takes 500 years or more for the plastic to decompose. Even then, the plastic will only break down into tiny particles that continue to pollute the Earth.

2. Reduce the carbon footprint from transporting leaves. Local garbage trucks operate from diesel or compressed natural gas. Either way, they burn up nonrenewable resources and emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere as they haul away leaves to the landfill or recycling center.

3. Avoid the possibility of spreading plant diseases. The leaves you bag may harbor diseases that could be spread if someone else uses the leaves in their garden. Anthracnose, for example, is a fungal disease that commonly affects many kinds of ornamental trees in our area. The pathogens overwinter in leaf debris and the spores germinate in spring.

4. Add organic matter to the soil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Fallen leaves are a readily available source of organic material that increases microbial activity in the soil. These lifeforms make nutrients more accessible to plants, so the plants can then divert more energy to capturing carbon dioxide from the air and transporting the Co2 through their roots into the earth. More carbon stored in the soil means less carbon is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

5. Use as mulch around plants. Fall leaves provide winter protection for your plants. Be sure to shred the leaves first with a lawn mower or shredder; otherwise, a thick layer of matted leaves will prevent water drainage and could lead to rot or fungal diseases. Spread the mulch lightly around the plant’s root zone, making sure it doesn’t touch the trunk or stem.

6. Use for compost. Shredded dry leaves are a good source of carbon for compost. Build healthy soil by composting a mixture of brown (high in carbon) and green (high in nitrogen) organic material at a ratio of approximately 25 to 1. Earthworms and micro-organisms will break down the leaves and other biomass in the compost pile to produce humus, a dark, crumbly substance that gardeners and farmers call “black gold.”

7. Provide winter shelter for wildlife. Leaf litter creates important habitat for native and other beneficial wildlife. Leafcutter bees, for example, are important native pollinators that use pieces of leaves to build their winter nests. Predatory insects (ladybugs, ground beetles, lacewings, minute pirate bugs, assassin bugs) overwinter in leaves and then get an early start in the spring when insect pests emerge, or they become a welcome meal for overwintering birds.

8. Use to store root vegetables. Spread a layer of shredded leaves over your root vegetables — beets, carrots, leeks, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, turnips — in the garden and store them underground until you use them. Or store root vegetables that have been dug up in a crate between layers of freshly fallen leaves, lightly sprinkled with water.

9. Use for fall décor. Preserve fall leaves by submerging them for a few days in a mixture of one-part vegetable glycerin and one-part water. The bright colors make beautiful wreaths and table arrangements, along with dried flowers and seedheads, branches, grasses and berries that can be foraged from your garden and yard.

10. Experience the joy of playing in the leaves. When was the last time you rolled in a big pile of leaves? OK, when was the last time you flung fall leaves up into the air and let them rain down all over you? Don’t let another year go by that you miss finding “the hidden joys” in fall leaves. Who knows? You might even come across some friendly “spirits begotten of a summer dream.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.