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Extension > Garden > Yard and Garden > Soils and composting > Options for disposing of leaves

Options for disposing of leaves

Robert J. Mugaas, Extension Educator, Department of Horticultural Science
Thomas R. Halbach, Extension Educator, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate

Fall clean-up usually means having to deal with an abundance of leaves. State law now bans this material from landfills and burning facilities in Minnesota. The options still available to homeowners include off-site disposal or use of leaves in the home landscape.

Options for off-site disposal include:

For information on community programs or sites, contact the Recycling Coordinator in your city. Contact your refuse hauler for their policies and rates, and check the Yellow Pages or your city office for the names of commercial yard waste processors near you. Shredding leaves can reduce volume by 50% or more and may result in reduced disposal costs.

Options for using leaves at home include:

Leaves make an excellent mulch for use around trees and shrubs, or in flower and vegetable gardens. They help retard the growth of weeds, help retain soil moisture, help maintain lower soil temperatures in the summer, and protect against temperature fluctuations and some types of low temperature injury during winter. They eventually decompose, adding their nutrients to the soil and improving soil structure.

Leaves make a good addition to your compost pile. Shredding is not required, but it may speed their rate of decomposition. Leaves are difficult to compost alone and will require extra nitrogen in the form of a commercial fertilizer (no weed 'n' feed products), or materials high in nitrogen such as grass clippings. If you have room, you can save leaves to mix with green materials next summer. As a general rule, grass clippings should be left on the lawn, but for those times when you need to collect clippings, it is useful to have leaves to mix with the grass for better composting results. For more detailed information on composting, see Extension publication FO-3296, Composting and Mulching: A Guide to Managing Organic Yard Wastes.

If you plan to allow leaves to remain on the lawn, it must be done cautiously and should be confined to lawns with only a light covering of leaves. (Grass blades should still be visible through leaves before shredding.) Shredding is recommended; several passes using a mower with or without a leaf shredding attachment will improve your chances for success. Even when shredded, it does not take a very heavy layer of leaves to smother the grass, causing partial die-back, or making it more susceptible to diseases. It is often necessary to remove at least some of the fallen leaves from the lawn.

Leaves from trees with leaf diseases such as apple scab, anthracnose, or leaf spot should be removed or destroyed to prevent over-wintering of the disease organisms in the debris and possible re-infection of new leaves next year. Oak leaves decompose more slowly than other types of leaves and it is best to use them for mulch or compost. In fact, their slower rate of decomposition makes them well suited for use as mulch.

The decision to shred or not shred leaves for composting or mulching is a matter of personal preference and is related to the homeowner's willingness to spend money for the purchase or rental of appropriate equipment. The ability and willingness to perform physical labor and to accept the potential physical risks may also be a factor in this decision. It is best in some cases to hire a landscape maintenance company to do your shredding.

You can shred leaves by running them through a shredder/chipper. This equipment is relatively expensive to purchase (several hundred dollars), and you should be sure to buy a machine that is large enough to handle your volume of leaves. Many of the smaller, less expensive machines require much more time to handle a large volume of material. Even some of the larger machines will become clogged if the leaves are wet, so it is better to only shred leaves when they are dry. Always use proper safety equipment and practices. (See Extension publication FS-3949, Home Yard Waste Chippers/Shredders: Safety Is Important!)

Another shredding option, which may be less effective but is more readily available to homeowners, is using a lawn mower to chop leaves. Most unmodified rotary mowers will at least partially shred leaves. Use of a mulching blade may improve results. Special leaf shredding attachments are available for some major brands of mowers and cost from $20 to $60. Some are more effective than others and may include a screen that helps reduce particle size. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations when using this equipment in order to avoid damage to your mower. Use good safety practices since debris may be thrown from the mower with considerable force and could cause serious injury.

For more information on yard waste management and composting, check with your local County Extension Office.

Information for Options for Disposing of Leaves was initially compiled by Jack Porter, former Education Coordinator-Yard Waste Management, University of Minnesota Extension Service-Hennepin County.

WW-05570 Reviewed 2009
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