Turn over a new leaf: composting beats burning

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Fall: It’s the time of year when trees put on their coats of many colors; apples fill the bins at roadside stands, carved pumpkins decorate porches, and thick, cough-inducing smoke fills the air.

It’s not hard to figure out which of these things doesn’t belong, but for some, burning leaves — despite regulations banning the practice in many areas — seems to be an Autumnal rite of passage. There are much better ways to dispose of your leaves, however; ways that don’t fill the neighborhood with smoke. Leaf burning is a health risk, especially to those with sensitive lungs, such as children and the elderly. It can induce asthma attacks, cause headaches and nausea, and is a frequent culprit in brush and structure fires. It also adds more pollution to the atmosphere and wastes some great garden nutrients. So quit burning (and encourage your neighbors to do the same) and start putting your leaves to good use.

If you have room, the easiest option is to rake them into a pile and let them decompose in an out-of-the-way part of your back yard. Chicken wire can be used to make a handy enclosure to keep them from blowing around. Pile them up inside, and let nature do the rest. It takes about two years to turn the leaves into an excellent soil amendment called “leaf mold.” Keeping the leaf pile moist and occasionally turning it over will help speed the process. Multiple piles will allow you to rotate your “crop” next fall. The end result can be used as mulch, as a peat moss replacement, and a number of other soil conditioners. (If you’d like to learn more, the folks at Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine have a wealth of information on composting leaves.)

If that’s not an option, many municipalities offer curbside leaf pickup; the information is usually listed on their Web site or available via a quick phone call. Leaves (as well as grass clippings and other yard waste) can also be taken to a number of compost facilities in the greater Lehigh Valley area, including Lehigh County’s, the Saucon County Compost Center, a number of sites in Allentown, the Bethlehem Compost Center, and more. Check with your municipality to find one nearby. Oh, and don’t forget to ask around your neighborhood, too – it’s quite possible someone is looking for more materials to add to their compost pile.

Whatever you do, please, don’t burn ’em. Mother Nature — and your neighbors  — will thank you.