Leaf season conjures up cooler days and aching muscles. But it doesn't have to mean mountains of trash. Think of leaves as free mulch.
"Why pay for pine straw when leaf mulch is free?" said Wayne McLaurin, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
"When the leaves fall, the easiest way to deal with them is to run over them with your lawn mower," he said. "Collect them in the bagger. Then place the ground-up leaves around your shrubbery, about three inches deep. The leaves will break down over time and produce compost."
When your plants all have a leafy blanket tucked in around their toes, turn the rest of your leaves into a rich soil amendment by composting.
"All backyard composting techniques use the natural activity of bacteria, fungi and other soil organisms," McLaurin said. "This decomposes organic materials and returns them to the soil. Compost is essential to healthy gardens and landscapes."
Gardeners have been composting in backyards for generations. But myths persist that it's unsanitary or hard to do.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," McLaurin said.
"Backyard composting can be the most economical and environmental way to manage organic materials from the landscape," he said. "It's not the solution for diverting all household organic waste. But composting much organic material at home just makes sense."
McLaurin ticks off six benefits of backyard composting:
1. Divert organic materials from landfill. More than 30 percent of current home pickup can be diverted from landfills by backyard composting. Keeping these materials at home prolongs the life of landfills. That protects the environment.
2. Save money. Every pound of organic material composted at home is a pound that won't have to be processed in a central composting facility. That saves the community money.
Residents who compost can save money on disposal, too. They also get a free soil amendment. And improving the health of their gardens trims maintenance costs.
One survey showed that backyard composting programs cost an average of $12 per ton. That compares to $32 per ton for disposal, plus collection costs. Even centralized composting costs $26 per ton, plus collection costs.
3. Improve soil and plant health and conserve water. Compost improves any soil. It makes soils better able to absorb and retain moisture. It cuts runoff, erosion and irrigation needs.
It supplies and stores nutrients so plants need less fertilizer. And added fertilizer stays in the soil instead of running off into streams, lakes or oceans.
"Plants seem to grow better with compost," McLaurin said.
4. Prevent harmful effects of leaf-burning. Burning leaves produces large amounts of carbon monoxide and tiny particles. These particles may irritate some people and cause health problems. Composting is much healthier than leaf-burning.
5. Build community pride. Many people feel helpless in the face of environmental and social problems. Through backyard composting, they can contribute in a positive way.
6. Create markets for recycled materials. Once people learn the benefits of using compost in their gardens, they will also buy commercial compost.
"Composting at home raises awareness of recycling and waste-reduction efforts, too," McLaurin said. "It's a great way to start people thinking about what's in their garbage. It's a hands-on introduction to recycling processes.
"Once people learn to deal with the organic part of their garbage," he said, "they get active in other waste reduction and recycling activities."
To learn more about composting, call your county Extension Service agent.