When autumn leaves start to fall

Sweet gum leaves                                                   Andy Atzert/Flickr

Sweet gum leaves                                                   Andy Atzert/Flickr

"The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold..."

“Autumn Leaves,” made songwriter Johnny Mercer nostalgic. You may feel something different if the leaves that drift by your window wind up ankle-deep on the lawn.

We tend to love fall foliage – as part of a glorious vista – and hate the fallout once the show is over. What seems like so much litter is actually a final gift from above as far as gardeners are concerned. It’s not just tree trash but leaf mold and compost in the rough.

If you live in leafy suburbia, most of what drops to the ground is going to fall on your lawn. By far, the easiest thing to do about this is simply to mow the leaves down. A mulching blade on your mower is a plus but not strictly necessary.

Adjust the mowing deck to its highest setting and have at it, mowing over at much as six inches of leaves at a time. You may have to make a pass or two to chop the leaves up; alternately, with a bagging mower, you can collect the leaf crumbs for the compost pile.

Chopped leaves left in place add free organic matter to the soil under the turf as they decompose. But there’s more. Turf grass researchers at Michigan State University claim that three years of this practice, which leaves a bit of mulch behind on the lawn’s bare spots, can eliminate crabgrass and dandelions (“nearly 100 percent decrease”). So there.

Leaves on walks and driveways and stairs do have to be removed. Blowers are quick, yes, if you can stand the noise. Raking is old-fashioned but effective. Choose a rake long enough to allow you to stand upright without hunching, wear gloves to prevent blisters and take it slow. It’s easier to rake leaves onto a tarp than to bag them if they must be moved.

Keith Survell/Flickr

Keith Survell/Flickr

Neatniks just want to kick those leaves to the curb. Fortunately, towns can no longer landfill organic trash but must compost it. Often they will share the half-rotted “leaf mold” with local gardeners next spring – free or for a price.

You can make your own at home by corralling leaves in a simple wire bin or piling them up in a heap in some out-of-the-way corner. You also can bag them and leave them until spring, by which time the contents will have turned into a crumbly soil amendment perfect for the vegetable garden or flower border.

Crafty types might want to save some of the most brilliant leaves of autumn for projects. To keep them looking fresh and pliable, spray them with floral preservative from the craft shop or snip off the branch ends and stand them in glycerine, available at most pharmacies.

Fall foliage combines nicely with berried twigs and evergreen sprigs as an arrangement that can give urns and planters a second wind as colder weather approaches. Leaves can be fastened to a wire form and made into a wreath. A branch or two in a vase, set where the light will shine through, can be as colorful as a bunch of flowers.

If you’re hoping for good color this year, hope for some cold snaps to prompt trees to enter dormancy.  Dry, droughty weather increases levels of pigment that create brilliant colors in such species as maples, sassafras, sumac and black gum. Mostly, it’s the shifting balance of night and day, the shrinking amount of daily sunlight, that prompts trees to go out in a blaze of glory.

The downfall of many a foliage season is a gusty rain storm that drives the leaves right off the trees before we can enjoy them, hike among them, shuffle through them or jump into piles of them. Remember your childhood or your lost love – but don’t be a grouch when autumn leaves start to fall.



Foliage viewing season begins the first week of October in northwestern New Jersey and spreads south, with peak color Oct. 19 through 29 on average. Check these websites for up-to-date reports:

Fall Foliage Network (foliagenetwork.com). Regional reports for the Northeast September through October.

NJ Hiking (njhiking.com/nj-fall-foliage). Foliage reports with tips on best hikes and scenic drives. 

Leaf Peepers (http://leafpeepers.com/nj.htm). Reports on the status of foliage color throughout New Jersey.