10/25/2012 08:58

In our part of the country a new season is upon us. Remarkably the relationship of the sun and the earth in space remains intact and, with much predictability, the weather patterns and the length of day change and we experience the repetition of the cycle of seasons.

            The trees which we treasure outdid themselves this year with leaves of color and now they are giving up their leaves and getting ready to rest. The result is lots and lots of leaves on the ground around us. In the woods they lay on the forest floor and, subjected to natural changes, build new soil. In the city, the abundance of leaves is a nuisance and we have difficulty seeing their value and want them out of sight.

In times past we enjoyed the smoke and smell of burning leaves. Now we know that burning leaves deprives us of the benefit of adding their nutrients to the soil and affects air quality. The particles we see as smoke rising from the fire remain in the atmosphere for an extended period of time. Moist leaves tend to burn slowly and release particulates – fine bits of dust, soot, and other solid materials. These particulates do not confine themselves close to the pile of burning leaves but only spread until we cannot detect them with our eyes.  Depending on weather conditions, the unseen particulates can affect air quality many miles from the site where they originate.

            The open burning of leaves produces particulate matter and hydrocarbons, which contain a number of toxic, irritant, and cancer-causing compounds. The particulates of leaf smoke can reach deep into lung tissue and irritate the nose and throat of healthy adults. More serious problems result for children under ten, adults over sixty-five, and persons with respiratory ailments including asthma, heart disease, or allergies.

            What can you do with leaves? Recycling is the best option. Leaves make good compost that can then be used as a fertilizer and soil conditioner. Master Gardeners from the University of Illinois Extension can give you good directions for composting. Many websites have instructions also – just google “composting.”       

            “As to using leaves as mulch for your lawn, it is just a simple matter of mowing right over the leaves with the lawnmower and leaving them there. As with leaves used for garden mulch, this will provide many benefits, including weed suppression, moisture conservation, and moderation of soil temperature.” (about.com)

            Learn more about air quality issues at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/index.html. The Technology Transfer Network (TTN) is a collection of technical web sites containing information about many areas of air pollution science, technology, regulation, measurement, and prevention.

            Rather than creating problems with leaves, you can solve problems with them.


Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 10/24/12 (for publication on 10/27/12 in the Journal-Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at info@stephensonswcd.org