Mulch, chopping, bagging -- dealing with leaves depends on the size of your property.

Autumn is a double-edged sword.

On one side, we have colors revving up into bright reds, yellows and oranges this year. Credit the rain, temperatures and bright sunlight.

The other side is the realization that the leaves will descend onto lawns and gardens over the next six weeks. Some plants will take their time dropping, turning raking into a weekly chore. Some will take longer than the six weeks. Darn you, oak trees!

Some trees and shrubs, such as ginkgoes, don’t dillydally around. They turn color one day, show their wares for three or four days, and then drop all at once, making raking either a “this Saturday” or “next Saturday” chore.

Winged euonymus, or burning bush, is another that stays fire engine-red for a while (but with a hard frost, the leaves drop overnight).

Many gardeners enjoy mowing, especially with a four-wheel lawn mower. However, few folks get excited about raking leaves. If you have one of those huge machines that shred and collect leaves, it might be more enjoyable, if the leaves aren’t too dry. Then you end up with lots of dust.

Gone are the days of burn piles for most urban residents. Our rural friends can burn, though many just hope for a good, strong wind that will send the leaves to Indianapolis.

Those with large, wooded lots may just have to let the leaves drop, creating a fine layer of leaf mold as they decompose that adds organic matter and serves as mulch for plants.

The rest of us have choices. We can do nothing and let leaves accumulate or blow into our neighbors’ yards. The latter doesn’t make good friends, which is why fences are great — they prevent leaves from blowing into our yards. (Of course, they can’t blow away, either.)

Now, if leaves accumulate, they eventually will break down and supply some nutrients, though the amount is hardly worth writing home about. Nitrogen is practically non-existent; you’re looking more at phosphorus, potassium and some of the minor elements.

Still, nutrients are nutrients, and that’s good for the plants.

Better yet, the leaves are a source of organic matter and over time will improve the quality of the soil. “Time” in this case refers to centuries rather than years.

And the organic matter will never be deep. If you want deep, black, fertile soil, you should be looking at grasses. Take a walk into the woods and see how deep the organic layer is. The average is 4 to 6 inches. Still, if you have clay soil, 4 to 6 inches is better than nothing.

On the down side, leaves don’t break down in the yard as fast as they do in the forest. So the leaves that you leave on the ground may be there for the next couple of years.

One way to make them decompose faster is to cut them into smaller pieces. The smaller the piece, the faster any organic matter breaks down.

It’s doubtful anyone will go around with a pair of scissors and cut leaves into teeny, tiny pieces. It would make an interesting punishment for a misbehaving child, but it’s probably not doable.

Some chipper-shredders allow you to stand and run the leaves through the whirling blades, creating much smaller pieces (and lots more dust). It would be wiser to find a chipper-shredder with a gas-powered mower so you wouldn’t need a bunch of extension cords running through your yard as you keep moving the machine to different locations.

This is where the mower comes in again. You can use the bagger option, mowing the leaves and collecting them. But, ideally, it’s easier to mow the leaves without the bagger attachment for the first one or two go-rounds. This way you chop the leaves into finer pieces; sometimes the leaves don’t shred as much as you might think, even though the blade is turning a zillion revolutions per minute.

After the pieces are small, reattach the bagging accessory and mow over the leaves one final time. Unfortunately, you still have to empty the bag, which means stopping and starting the mower.

Still, the pieces are smaller.

And the good news is the mower bag holds more shredded leaves than full-sized leaves, so you don’t have to empty it as often. On the other hand, the bag weighs more.

David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension.
For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to
www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.