By Lynn Jenkins/Times Sentinel columnist
Growing up in the 1950s, I recall October’s pungent smell of burning leaves, often laced with heavy smoke as homeowners raked leaves to the gutter and burned away.
Fortunately for kids (and adults), leaf burning is no longer allowed today, and so the air we breathe is cleaner and healthier. Instead of the piles of burning leaves, we now see fallen leaves raked into the streets in neat long rows.
In the Village, leaves are vacuumed up once a week through most of October and November, according to Beth Hatton with the Zionsville Street Department. They are then turned into compost and soil amendment — ready for your garden next spring. Hatton said the town offers free truckloads of leaves to anyone who is able to handle that many leaves. (She can be reached at 873-4544.) Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the space to work with that large a volume of this garden gold.
In our own yards we can still take advantage of the abundance of leaves in several ways.
Instead of blowing the leaves to the street, just mow them into your lawn. Most mowers now have mulching blades or simple mulching attachments. This method double cuts the leaves into finer pieces so they can readily decompose into your lawn, adding organic matter and nutrients without any smothering effect on the lawn. Just mow on a regular basis as the leaves continue to fall, even if the grass is no longer growing.
Such decomposing is good for the lawn. Tiny critters — bacteria, fungi and microbes — as well as amazing earthworms, get busy devouring the leaves, depositing in their place wonderful organic material that nourishes the soil.
Too often we destroy these natural beneficial helpers by adding toxic chemicals to the lawn. According to the experts at the Purdue Extension, feeding the soil is the best way to maintain healthy lawns and gardens.
Leaves can also be used as mulch around roses and perennials and under shrubs, again adding nutrient-rich organic matter to the plants. IBags can be emptied and layered directly on a vegetable garden, in among the perennials, under shrubs, or right onto the compost pile.
Don’t have a compost pile? You should if you do any type of gardening or lawn maintenance. Compost improves the soil structure and texture. It gives better drainage to Indiana’s typically clay soils. Unlike general fertilizers, compost adds both basic and micronutrients to the soil, not just the basic three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.
Compost also helps balance the soil ecology by encouraging those beneficial microorganisms that enrich the soil. It’s like adding super vitamins to your plants, helping them to fend off pests and disease.
Fall is an ideal time to start a compost pile. Visit http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/building.html for more information.
Nature offers many gifts; leaves are truly one of her best. Take advantage of them this fall to improve your lawn and garden naturally.
Lynn Jenkins is a Zionsville resident and member of ZIGG, Zionsville Initiative to Go Green. Email her at LJenks@tds.net.