COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. — Among the fall activities that many people engage in is dealing with fallen leaves from trees. However, instead of burning leaves, a Purdue expert urged homeowners to find an alternative strategy.
“In addition to being illegal in many areas, leaf burning leads to air pollution and is a health and fire hazard,” said Dr. Rosie Lerner, Purdue consumer horticulture specialist. “The smoke from burning leaves contains a number of toxic and/or irritating particles and gases.” She said the tiny particles contained in smoke from burning leaves can accumulate in the lungs and stay there for years. These particles can increase the risk of respiratory infection, as well as reduce the amount of air reaching the lungs. For those who already suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders, leaf burning can be extremely hazardous.
Moist leaves, which tend to burn slowly, give off more smoke than do dry leaves. “These moist leaves are more likely to also give off chemicals called hydrocarbons, which irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs,” she said. “Some of these hydrocarbons are known to be carcinogenic.”
Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that results from incomplete burning, such as with smoldering leaf piles. After inhaling carbon monoxide gas, it is absorbed into the blood, where it reduces the amount of oxygen that the red blood cells can carry. “Children, seniors, smokers and people suffering from chronic lung and heart disease are more susceptible than healthy adults to carbon monoxide effects,” she said.
An Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) brochure, titled, Learn before you burn! said, “Breathing in smoke is never good for you.” It added, “Even if your community allows residents to burn leaves or other yard waste, it is never advised.” Find the brochure at: https://www.in.gov/idem/airquality/files/open_burning_brochure.pdf.
So, what are some alternatives to burning those fallen leaves?
In many municipalities, there are designated leaf pick-up times. Simply rake your leaves to the curb and the city takes it from there. Some municipalities may require bagging leaves in biodegradable bags.
For those who don’t live in the city, there are other alternatives.
The first option to consider is composting the leaves. Finished compost is a great source of organic matter and one of the best soil amendments that can be added to vegetable gardens or flower beds. To speed up the rotting process, leaves would have to be mixed with “green” materials, such as grass clippings, garden discards or produce scraps. Purdue Extension has some great resource materials that offer tips on composting, available at www.edustore.purdue.edu.
Lerner said shredded leaves can be used as mulch around garden or landscape plants. Mulches provide many benefits, including weed suppression, moisture conservation and moderation of soil temperature. “Leaves can be applied to dormant plants in winter to prevent young plants from heaving out of the ground,” she said. “Leaf mulch can help keep soil cooler in summer.” Lerner recommended that no more than a 2- to 3-inch layer of leaves should be used around actively growing plants. Chopping or shredding the leaves first will help prevent them from matting down and preventing air from reaching roots.
If you are a gardener, you can directly apply leaves to garden soil after vegetables are harvested, and till the leaves in. Leaves should be broken down by the time spring rolls around and you are ready to plant again. If you chop or shred the leaves first, they will break down more quickly.
If you have larger-leaved trees in your yard, such as maples or sycamores, fallen leaves can smother lawn grass if not dealt with. Unless there is an abundance of these types of trees that require raking, your easiest tactic is probably to just run your mower and chop the leaves into the turf.
— John E. Woodmansee, Extension Educator, Agriculture/Natural Resources
Purdue University Extension, Whitley County
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