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January 9, 2024
This fall, did you rake up all of your leaves, pack them into giant paper bags, and leave them on the curb? Did you spend hours cutting a big branch that fell in your yard into smaller pieces so that it would fit in a trash can, then slowly get rid of it over the course of weeks because your trash service will only accept limited amounts of yard waste at a time? Did you clear out your gardens and then burn it all? Are you wasting your yard waste?
According to the PA Department of Environmental Protection, “yard trimmings, food scraps, and other organics make up about 34% of municipal waste landfilled in Pennsylvania.” This has both short-term and long-term costs for taxpayers. The trucks collecting yard waste cost money and burn fossil fuels, and the quicker we fill up our landfills, the sooner new ones will need to be created. Maybe you won’t be able to completely reduce the amount of yard debris that you send away or burn, but the good news is, there are many simple ways to incorporate fallen leaves, garden trimmings, and branches back into your yard to enhance your soil and reduce your carbon footprint.
A diagram of carbon and nutrient cycling. Credit: The U.S. Geological Survey
In a forest, trees and other plants take up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and nutrients from the soil and incorporate it into their branches, leaves, and other plant parts. When the plant loses its leaves, is eaten, or dies, the nutrients it contains are returned to the soil via the bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and insects that break them down. As the soil organisms break down plant matter, the carbon it contains eventually returns to the atmosphere in the form of CO2. If no new plant matter is added to the ground, organic matter gradually disappears from the soil. However, if plant material is added to the soil at a faster rate than organisms are able to decompose it, CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere and stored in the ground. By using your yard waste in your own yard, you can build healthy, nutrient-rich soil, save lots of money on mulch and fertilizer, and reduce greenhouse gasses.
So… how do you do this? Here are a few ideas:
Instead of bagging your leaves, rake them into garden beds and under trees to use them as mulch. If they fall in the woods or another place where you don’t mind the lawn not growing, just leave them where they fall. For thin layers of leaves on the lawn, you can use the mower to chop them up into tiny pieces and leave them in the grass. If you have more leaves than garden space, consider creating a leaf bin where leaves can decompose and create leaf mold, which you can use later as a mulch and fertilizer. More detailed tips on using leaf mulch can be found here.
Mulch is valuable because it retains soil moisture, adds organic matter, moderates seasonal fluctuations in soil temperature, prevents weed growth, and reduces soil compaction. Mulch is also expensive, so why not take advantage of the free mulch that your yard provides?
Applying leaf mulch in a flower bed (Credit: fresh-basil.com).
Collecting fallen leaves in a leaf bin (Credit: lomi.com)
Hügelkultur (pronounced hyoo-gul-kulture) is a European gardening technique that uses logs, branches, leaves, manure, grass clippings, and compost in layers to create a self-sustaining garden bed. The beds retain rainwater and decompose, making them both self-watering and self-fertilizing. You can plant hügelkultur mounds with food crops, ornamental plants, or create them in a naturalized planting area in your backyard. Did a big tree fall in your yard, and you don’t know what to do with it? Try hügelkultur.
A hügelkultur bed planted with seasonal vegetables (Credit: permaculture.co.uk).
Cross-sectional diagram of a hügelkultur bed (Credit: Carmen Wright, Landscape Architecture student at Oklahoma State University).
Wattle fences are made by weaving thin branches between upright stakes to create a lattice. Europeans began making wattle fences thousands of years ago to contain livestock and as a base in building construction. In modern times, people also use wattle fences as attractive ways to fence off gardens, create windbreaks, or make a privacy screen. Use the fallen branches and trimmings from your trees and bushes to continue this ancient tradition in your yard.
A wattle fence being used to border a vegetable garden (Credit: Elizabeth Waddington).
Wattle fence being used to contain a goose (Credit: Elizabeth Waddington)
Similar to a wattle fence, but bushier, a dead hedge is made by weaving woody materials between upright stakes. Use your fallen branches or tree trimmings to create dead hedges in the woods or other parts of your yard, and provide habitat for birds, beneficial insects, and other small animals. Beautify your dead hedge by using it as a trellis for native vines like trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Dutchman’s-pipe (Isotrema macrophyllum), or a native clematis.
Prunings stacked to create a dead hedge (Credit: Bearstead Woodland Trust).
A compost pile is a simple way to recycle nutrients from organic matter. If you don’t have room for a big pile of compost in your yard, or just don’t like the way that it looks, compact pre-made bins are available commercially in a variety of forms. Put kitchen scraps, grass clippings, paper, and plant material in your compost to keep it out of the landfill and create free fertilizer.
A row of compost bins constructed from old pallets (Credit: Bonnie Plants).
A compact, pre-made compost bin (Credit: David Freund/Getty Images).
This article was written by Katie Gardner, Pennsylvania Seasonal Reforestation Specialist (Fall 2023).
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