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Fall Cleanup

Fall. It's more of a verb than a season for some people. In autumn, if you have deciduous trees in your yard, then you also have a front-row seat for their seasonal strip tease. . . .

Nature saves her biggest show for last. Late in the year, the world seems to take a deep, cold breath and hold it. In the stillness of glittery October sunlight, the trees and shrubs flame. A walk down a country lane becomes an awe-inspiring extravaganza of color. And then . . . wham! All those beautiful leaves fall off and cover your lawn and gardens with a mess.

I don't think of fallen leaves as a burden, though. To me, those are pennies from heaven. They're valuable to gardeners for all kinds of reasons, and I use or save every one I can. You can use a layer of them for mulching tender plants like hybrid tea roses, where they will not only keep the weeds down, but will also help the soil retain moisture. You can shred and compost them over the winter, or bag them for use in the spring. In either case, keeping the leaves for use in the garden and on the lawn (instead of bagging them and sending them to the landfill) will return micronutrients to the soil, foster a diverse culture of microorganisms, and create a layer of rich, friable humus.

No matter how much leaves contribute to the soil, though, they don't do the grass any good if they are left to lie where they fall. If you allow piles of whole leaves to remain on the lawn, they'll mat down under winter's relentless rain and snow and smother the grass. The solution is to either remove them entirely or simply make them small enough to break down without stifling the growth of the grass.

There are several tools that can help you in the cleanup process, but perhaps the first place you should turn is to a machine you may have been using all summer, anyway-the mulching mower. Grass blades are leaves, after all, and if you use a mulching mower during the growing season, it will chop and rechop the blades into tiny particles that filter down between the living grass to the soil surface. There the microorganisms will cause them to decay and return their nutrients back to the topsoil w