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RISMEDIA, October 23, 2010—(MCT)—In many areas around the country, trees have begun their annual ritual of showering us with leaves of orange, yellow, crimson and brown. For many, this means hours raking and bagging leaves to be carted off or burned in communities where the practice is still legal. This year, why not turn autumn’s bounty into free beneficial mulch for your yard and garden and do your part to create less waste and air pollution.

Leaves are too good to waste. They contain beneficial nutrients, break down into an excellent soil conditioner and improve the natural habitat for beneficial insects and native birds in your yard. But you can’t just let them pile up.

You need a mulching mower with a bag attachment to chop the leaves into smaller pieces so they don’t smother the plants or turf in your yard.

Start by raking the leaves out of your shrubs or flowerbeds. The object is to get all of the leaves onto a grassy or otherwise flat surface. Use the mulching mower to chop the leaves into smaller pieces. Once the bag is full, simply pour the leaf mulch into your beds, natural areas or vegetable garden. The mulch can be applied several times over the season, but you shouldn’t let the depth exceed four inches at any one time.

You can also use the mulching mower without the bag attachment to add a light layer of nitrogen rich leaf mulch to the turf areas in your yard.

Turning leaves into mulch is beneficial in many ways. First of all, the mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and insulates plants from extreme winter temperatures. Leaf mulch will also decompose over the winter turning into an excellent conditioner for the warming spring soil. This will help attract worms and other beneficial microorganisms that will create a healthier growing environment in your flowerbeds and vegetable gardens.

Several inches of leaf mulch in your flowerbeds can also attract ground-feeding birds like towhees, American sparrows and thrashers searching for seeds and insects. You can also use a thick application of leaf mulch to form a mud-free path through your garden or vegetable patch.

Turning leaves into mulch is a much more earth-friendly alternative to burning leaves or sending them to the landfill. Some municipalities will collect leaves and other yard debris as a means to keep them from the landfill. They turn the waste into compost, which is then made available to local residents and businesses.

Even if you don’t use the leaves to make mulch, collecting and keeping them off the street is good for everyone. Leaves create slippery conditions for drivers and bike riders when it rains. Mounds of leaves can also clog local storm drains, creating dangerous high water conditions on roadways during a heavy downpour.

Cleaning up autumn leaves doesn’t have to be a big chore. Turn that mound of work into beneficial mulch and feel good about doing your part to turn waste into a usable product that nurtures your garden and our planet.

(c) 2010, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.