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Leaves: The gift that keeps on giving
Thursday, November 14, 2013 9:35 AM

Leaves: The gift that keeps on giving

By Kylee Baumle

Few would dispute that we’re experiencing one of the most colorful fall seasons in recent history. I see comment after comment on Facebook and  Twitter talking about it and numerous photos provide the visual proof to the rest of the world that the trees and shrubs are about as gaudy as it gets here in northwest Ohio.

I’ve been asked just what it is about this fall that makes the colors so much more vibrant than in those past.  The process that produces color in leaves is called senescence. Changes in both day length and temperature trigger its beginning, and the trees stop producing chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their characteristic green color.

Without chlorophyll, the green disappears and the yellows and oranges, which were there all along, remain. Red color is another matter and the mechanism for its appearance is not entirely understood.

Though some red is present in certain leaves, it is mostly produced as a stress response, and serves as a kind of sunscreen for the leaves.  It allows them to remain on the tree a little longer, perhaps so the tree can continue to gather nutrients to help it through the winter. We don’t really know for sure.

Why one year’s colors are superior to another’s is related to that season’s weather.  The season’s rainfall (or lack of it) plays a part, but when we have an autumn that has cool nights without frost combined with sunny days, we get the most vibrant shades of color.  That’s exactly what happened this year.

The winds of the past week have done a pretty good job of stripping the trees of their colorful array of leaves and those of us with a fair number of trees on our property are left with an equally colorful carpet on the lawn floor.

Fallen leaves can be a good thing for our gardens and even the lawn itself, but you can have too much of a good thing. Too many larger leaves, and smaller plants get smothered and fungus grows.  I’ve seen it happen in my own garden.  So what’s a person to do with all those leaves?

Open burning isn’t allowed in most areas and for health reasons it isn’t advisable to burn leaves anyway.  The smoke contains carcinogens. And burning them would be a waste of a perfectly good organic material that can be used to enrich our lawns and our gardens.

Personally, we chop the leaves with the mower and add them to the compost bin.  Chopped leaves will decompose faster than intact ones and by the time spring rolls around, we’ve got some pretty good stuff to add to the soil.  We also use some of those chopped leaves as mulch in the fall, placing it around trees and shrubs.

Fallen leaves are important to the ecosystem in other ways.  Have you ever noticed the ladybugs present in large numbers under the leaves when you clean them from your flower beds in the spring? That’s where they’ve spent the winter.  Other insects do the same.  Some butterfly caterpillars will wrap themselves up in leaves in the fall and stay there until spring.

Consider these things when you’re cleaning up your yard and your gardens this fall.  Use them for good and leave some of them for our insect friends.

Read more at Kylee’s blog, Our Little Acre, at www.ourlittleacre.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OurLittleAcre. Contact her at PauldingProgressGardener@gmail.com.