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Recycling leaves is good
Grass is greener...
plant shoots
The more organic matter you can get into your yard and garden soil the better for new and existing plants. - photo by Stock photo

The tupelo tree in my backyard started turning color last weekend. Two red leaves last Saturday have increased to half the tree starting to blush.
Wasn’t I just melting in the heat yesterday and now we are looking at leaf raking?  Halloween displays went up in the stores on Labor Day. Apparently seasons are out of fashion with everybody this year, including Mother Nature.  
Whenever the leaves on your trees fall I encourage you to capture all that good organic matter and put it back to work in your yard. The best fertilizer for any woody plant is its own leaves.  Each leaf has locked inside it the right amount and proportion of metals to make another leaf just like it.  
When they fall to the ground the leaves are used by insects, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms and rollypollys as food, excreting the mineral goodies back into the soil when they are done with them. The buddy fungi on the plant roots take up the minerals and water from the soil and mainline it right into the sap stream of the plant.
Yep, two semipermeable membranes of the plant are bypassed and the fungi dump the minerals and water right into the water-conducting xylem of the plant. Then your plants use it to make more plant.  
It’s a really well designed cycle that runs all by itself quite nicely, thank you, until we humans interfere with it.
We rake away the leaves and deny food to the living component of our soil.  
Yes!  Soil is living!  If it is not living it is called dirt.  Dead soil has no life in it nd therefore cannot evolve carbon dioxide.  
Ever see what happens to plants installed in dead soil?  
Yep, they die too.  
We measure soil productivity by the amount of carbon dioxide given off by the soil. The more CO2 given off, the more productive the soil is. The carbon dioxide in the soil that is given off by soil microorganisms comes from the organic matter mixed into the soil. That organic matter comes from the leaves and other plant and animal debris that fall onto the soil surface. It also comes from the roots and microorganisms that grow and then die in the soil.
Rodents, earthworms and insects churn surface organic matter down into the soil.
When we rake away, bag up or burn leaves and pruned branches we break the carbon cycle in the soil.  The microorganisms continue to burn the remaining carbon out of the soil.
With less organic matter for the soil microorganisms to eat, there is less mineral availability for your plants.  Your plants stress and stunt.  You can turn that problem around by returning all the green waste from your landscape back into your landscape as mulch and compost.
Mulches should be plant-derived organic matter. Rubber mulch is good for plastic trees. Stone mulch cannot be used as food by soil microorganisms plus it heats up and cooks plants. Mulch should not be in contact with the plant trunk. The base of the plant at the ground line should receive sun and air to keep the root crown free of detrimental viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects and rodents.  
Out past the trunk the mulch should be two inches to four inches deep when settled. When plants and soil are healthy the mulch will disappear at a rate of about two inches per year. Replenishing mulch to maintain a two inch thick minimum depth should be at least an annual event. Don’t scrape away the old mulch, just dress up the top with new mulch.  
If you have a vegetable garden you can use clean, disease free green waste from the garden plus leaves and twigs from your landscape to compost and turned back into your garden soil with a rototiller.  
Tilling composted organic matter into your garden soil is the fastest way to durably increase the productivity of your garden. There is no such thing as too much organic matter in soil.  Pure organic matter soils are highly prized and priced and are used for vegetable production, so even one hundred percent organic matter is wonderful.
You can buy a wide array of organic matter sources to till into the garden and nearly all of them provide good benefits.  
I have yet to figure out what people are thinking when they go out and buy organic matter for their garden while a pile of perfectly good yard waste sits at the curb to be carried off.  Maybe it’s just an example of being penny wise and pound foolish.  There is no good reason for there to be any residential green waste stream to our landfills.
So, you have a choice.  
Rake up the leaves, twigs, shrub clippings and branches.  Put it all in plastic bags (made of petroleum) and put it at the curb so a packer truck (powered by petroleum) picks the perfectly good organic matter up and carries it off to a landfill where the beneficial minerals are buried by a bulldozer (also powered by petroleum) away from the cycle of life.  
Then get in your car (powered by petroleum) and go to the stores to buy fertilizers (made from petroleum) to put on your plants, thereby short circuiting the web of life in the soil.  As the plants stress they become more susceptible to diseases and insects, so you get in your petroleum powered car and go buy insecticides and fungicides (made of, you guessed it – petroleum) to apply to your debilitated plants.  
Then complain about the cost of gasoline.  
Or, you can recycle your yard waste back into your landscape and garden, save some money and fuel and have more time for the people about whom you care.  

Gardner is  the University of Georgia extension agent for South Bryan. He resides in Keller.

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