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Compost or Burn?

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Burning leaves in the fall was a part of my growing up in the 1950s and has fortunately declined for several reasons. Composting colorful leaves, creating compost piles for mulch, or curbside pick up is available. Some communities ban burning. I recall enjoying the aroma of burning leaves as a five-year old. I did not realize the health risks that are greatest for children and people with lung or heart issues or additional pollution.

Chris Baer advised that using leaves as mulch around garden plants is better than woodchips. She reserves the woodchips for trees and shrubs. The withering of summer vegetation in fall is beautiful and provides resources ideal for gardens. 

Mulched leaves around plants two to three inches thick suppresses weeds, conserves soil moisture, and moderates soil temperature. Summer’s green has turned yellow, crimson, or brown and fallen on lawns. They can be diced with a lawn mower and left on the lawn if not too thick as a soil conditioner. 

Leaves used from a compost pile add nutrients to the soil. Worms and insects live in the compost and hasten recycling. Occasionally turn compost to enrich the air supply to help beneficial fungus and bacteria that fill a decomposition nature niche. 

In the woods, fall leaves will mostly disappear by early summer of the following year. Eastern Towhees among other birds flip woodland leaves when searching for insects. Towhees somewhat resemble robins. Their sides are orange but their central belly is white. They have black hoods and backs with some white flashes instead of a robin’s gray. Birds searching for food adds beauty to yards and forest but many migrate as fall advances.

Some leaves decompose more rapidly and provide better soil conditioner. Maple, ash, and apple leaves make better mulch than oak leaves. 

I allow a layer of leaves to remain under the sugar maple where grass does not thrive in deep shade. In the spring a carpet of violets make their way through dead leaves to green the ground three inches tall. Near the maple is a balsam fir that provides an evergreen shelter for birds all winter. Maple leaves have blown under the fir branches that hug the ground. There a towhee actively feeds during spring, summer and fall. 

Beyond the reaches of the maple tree’s canopy, leaves fall on the lawn and are moved to a compost pile. Some are mulched with the mower to feed the lawn before they get too thick. Small pieces do not smother grass. 

Green material like corn husks, apple cores, grape stems, and other kitchen vegetative waste promote compost decomposition. Create sections for a compost pile so one area is more decomposed and ready for use sooner. 

Compost used in vegetable and flower gardens improves soil nutrients, soil moisture, and maintains healthier soil temperature that reduces plant stress. It creates habitat for beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and small wildlife. Compost does not release air pollutants hazardous to our health like burning leaves that reach deep into lung tissue, cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes long-term respiratory problems. 

At Ody Brook we work to maintain open field areas for sun-loving field plants, butterflies, and field birds. Removed shrub and tree stems are used to create carefully designed brush piles used by rabbits, birds, and other animals. For slow decomposition about 15 brush piles are scattered in the forest near cleared field areas. 

Burning leaves is not a best practice for our health or nutrient recycling. It is faster than allowing nature to go about its recycling business but it rapidly releases pollutants. Make a compost pile instead to benefit you, your gardens, and a healthy environment. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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