Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cleaning Your Home of Biological Pollutants

Be it ever so humble, there's no place as deadly as home. Well, that's not strictly true, even though most accidents occur in the home, including most auto accidents taking place within five miles of home sweet home. What a deathtrap! But seriously, the fact is that most of us still spend a considerable part of every day indoors. Safely tucked away in the family room or kitchen, few of us realize that we are being exposed to a host of potentially harmful biological pollutants, which in varying cases can cause mild discomfort, often confused with a simple lingering cold, or more severe illnesses with long-range health complications.

Looking around our homes, it might be hard to imagine that our pets, humidifiers, and carpeting can represent sources for biological contamination. In fact, for most people a damp towel or face cloth or a soggy bath mat produces nothing more than a sour smell, and "contamination" is an extreme way of viewing that spot of unsightly mildew in the shower stall. However, many other individuals are highly susceptible to these pollutants, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic allergies, and lung disease. For this at-risk community, biological pollutants deserve both attention and corrective action.

Contributors to contamination

Many of the causes of biological pollution are hard to avoid, even in the cleanest homes, and include everyday activities like cooking and showering, which result in the high moisture levels conducive to the spread and growth of mold, mildew, dust mites, and other unwanted guests, all of which can, in turn, lead to health complications. In fact, the "moisture connection" is one of the most widespread causes for contamination, although it is one of the easiest to remedy.

Among the other common sources are pollen, infectious agents like bacteria and viruses, microscopic dust mites living on household dust, cat saliva and other pet dander -- the tiny or microscopic scales from skin, hair and fur, and feathers. Macroscopic and generally hated agents include mice and rats, especially their protein-rich urine, and numerous insect pests. Cockroaches are bad enough, but even microscopic "flakes" from their dead bodies can cause significant distress for some people.

Allergists and respiratory specialists generally look at several major categories of health problems related to biological pollution, including allergic, infectious, and toxic reactions, although many are interrelated, especially as conditions favorable to one problem are advantageous to others, particularly where moisture, warmth, and humidity are involved.

An allergy is basically the immune system's response to an unwanted foreign substance or allergen, such as pollen or pet dander. In sensitive individuals, this response goes well beyond sniffling and sneezing and can take the form of a severe and even life-threatening overreaction. Upon entering the body, allergens prompt the body's immune system to produce millions of antibodies which attach themselves to cells throughout the body, ready and waiting for another "invasion" by that specific substance. When the allergen is detected, the antibodies trigger the cells to release chemicals called histamines to help destroy the allergens, although the allergic reaction can often pose more of a health threat than the allergen itself.

Infectious reactions or diseases are the handiwork of bacteria and viruses, and are easily spread via contaminated countertops, improperly cleaned cooking utensils, and through the air from person to person. Bacteria and viruses can also be brought into the home from the outdoors on dirty shoes or soiled clothing, or even by bringing plants inside from a garden or patio. Airborne diseases, which can also be spread via some ventilation systems, have also demonstrated a much higher viability in moist environments where they can survive until meeting up with a new host -- or victim.

Toxic reactions have started to receive a great deal more attention as discussions mount regarding sick building syndrome. Among the best known example is humidifier fever, brought about by toxins released by microorganisms and fungi thriving in poorly maintained or designed heating and cooling systems, both in large commercial properties and in some typical residential systems and home humidifier units.

Drying Out
While increased cleanliness, better cleaning habits, and air filters can help control some of the particulate contaminants in the home, there is no doubt that water and moisture play perhaps the most significant role in creating biological pollution. Standing or stagnant water, or water-damaged materials (wood, wallboard, carpeting or carpet pads) are breeding grounds for insects, bacteria, and other pests. Cold exterior wall surfaces, especially inside closets or behind furniture and bookcases, can experience condensation, thereby triggering fungal outbreaks of mold and mildew, along with their attendant allergens and toxins. And warm, moist conditions are ideal for dust mites, which represent a one of the most ubiquitous and potent allergens in most homes.

Unfortunately, this "muggy" indoor environment is fairly much the norm in the northern part of the U.S., where studies cited by the American Lung Association found that approximately 30-50 percent of all homes and large structures demonstrate a high relative humidity -- exceeding 50 percent. In addition, research found other signs of periodic dampness in these homes, often resulting from seasonal flooding, leaks, and so on.

Making Your Home Healthier
To prevent the rash of problems likely to result in a tropical household, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that relative humidity be controlled to 30-50 percent, and that remedial steps be taken to better manage other sources of moisture. The following is a room-by-room recipe for a healthier home.

Basement: If carpeting is used on a concrete floor, install a vapor barrier (basically a plastic sheeting) to keep moisture from entering the carpet backing and fibers. Clean and dry water-damaged carpets within one day -- or consider replacing the carpet. Also, it might be advisable to simply use another flooring surface or removable area rugs. Check for and repair any sources of leaks or water damage, especially around windows and exterior stairwells. Increase air circulation and consider using a dehumidifier in damp sublevels, and be sure to frequently drain (every day) and clean the "evaporation tray" or collection reservoir.

Kitchen: Install and use an exhaust fan -- or at least open a window -- when cooking, hand-washing dishes, or using a dishwasher, etc., to vent moisture to the outdoors. Do not rely on the all-too-common rangetop hoods which simply filter cooking particulates. Periodically check, empty, and thoroughly clean refrigerator drip pans; check for moldy gaskets and clean or replace them. Carefully clean all food preparation areas and utensils. However, exercise caution when using various cleaning products; do not mix different types of cleaning agents. Consider using an effective organic or botanically-derived alternative. Clean and rinse sponges and frequently change dish towels since disease pathogens are sometimes spread by cleaning with contaminated cleaning aids; use a different sponge for each different cleaning chore. Clean all damp surfaces in the kitchen.

Utility Room: Vent dryers and consider using an exhaust fan when washing laundry. "Air dry" wet laundry outdoors.

Bathrooms: Use an exhaust fan to vent moisture or open a window. Replace and clean towels and bathmats regularly. Clean and dry surface areas thoroughly; use the same amount care as with kitchen sanitation, especially since many bathroom cleaners contain caustic chemicals and release harmful vapors. Remove, vigorously clean, or replace moldy shower or window curtains.

Bedrooms: Individuals with a low tolerance for dust and dander should avoid down-filled pillows and comforters, and should use allergenic-proof mattress pads, as well as foam rubber and other synthetic bedding materials. Further, bedclothes should be frequently laundered with hot water reaching 130 degrees or more.

Attics and Crawl Spaces: Check areas for leaks or water damage, provide exterior venting and improve air circulation. Cover the dirt "flooring" of crawl spaces under the house with a vapor barrier to keep out moisture and control pest infiltration.

General Household: Improve overall air circulation by ensuring that fresh air can enter the house via air exchangers or by opening windows; move furniture away from exterior walls; and leave doors into rooms partially open most of the time, including closet doors -- paying special attention to closets with exterior walls. Remove all traces of mold through cleaning; do not simply paint or wallpaper over damaged areas. Change or clean air filters for heating and cooling systems regularly, including window air conditioners, whose evaporation trays should also be examined and cleaned periodically. If a central humidifier is being used, carefully observe the recommended maintenance schedule; with portable units, change water as directed and clean all water-contact surfaces. Dusting and vacuuming can be torture for sensitive individuals, as the act of cleaning often stirs up a universe of mite allergens and other contaminants. Highly allergic people should leave areas (or homes) being cleaned; others should wear a protective mask, and use a dampened cloth or sponge-mop for cleaning. Vacuum and dust often to remove surface dust and reduce dust mite habitat. A central vacuum system is advisable for the acutely sensitive, although rather costly. Other extreme measures can include replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with washable area rugs and replace window blinds or delicate shades with washable curtains.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 25, 2013

Great Gourds! Pumpkins & More

As you select and prepare to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, you should pause to reflect on the vast impact this humble gourd has had on our cultural history.

Pumpkins generally trace their origins to Central America, and collections of seed have been found in Mexico dating back several thousand years. Today, pumpkins are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and have found their way into our legends and traditions, kitchens, kitschy competitions, and media.

In literature, we should remember poor Ichabod Crane, knocked for a loss by a pumpkin lobbed by the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” or even Cinderella’s enchanted carriage. Then, of course, there is the now classic book and television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” or the more edgy Pumpkin King, in Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” to say nothing of the early 90’s band, Smashing Pumpkins.

Culinary uses range from traditional pumpkin pie filling and pumpkin butter, to protein-rich seeds, which can be roasted and salted. The meat of the pumpkin can also be boiled or fried, diced or pureed, and has found its way as a filling for sweet Italian ravioli, soups, and numerous vegetarian dishes. Some microbreweries even produce a seasonal pumpkin ale.

Lately, florists have gotten into the act and use pumpkins as containers to fill with autumn-themed flowers as centerpieces or gift baskets.

If these notions have you seeing orange, then keep in mind that pumpkins come in a host of colors, from the red “Rouge D’Etant” to varieties in gold, buff, greenish-blue, and blue. New cultivars named “Casper” or “Baby-Boo” offer white pumpkins, which might be particularly ghoulish when carved.

Another important variety includes the giant pumpkins, perfect for competitions. Gourd gardeners are now approaching the 1,500 pound barrier on individual specimens. The 1,000 pound mark was broken in 1996 with the variety “Atlantic Giant,” and within the past several years a 1,458 pound specimen made its way into the Guinness Book of Records. There are also articles about a man who grew more than 2,700 pounds of pumpkin on a single vine.

Another somewhat less-dignified competition includes the popular “pumpkin flings” held each year, such as the “World Championship Punkin Chunkin” in Delaware. Approximately 30,000 people gather to watch medieval style catapults, 100 foot-long cannons, and four-story tall slingshots shoot ten-pound pumpkins up to 4,000 feet through the air.

However, pumpkins no doubt have their greatest appeal when artfully carved and illuminated as Jack-o’-Lanterns for Halloween. And while this tradition is relatively new, especially in the New World, its origins extend back thousands of years into the misty past.

We begin with Celts celebrating the “Feast of Samhain” on November 1. The feast takes its name from the Gaelic Samhraidhreadh, meaning summer’s end, and is a celebration of the final harvest, which featured bonfires, food, dancing, and costumes. It is also an important mystical time, the start of a new year, when the transition between seasons opens a doorway into the realm of spirits.

Samhain is also identified as a godlike individual, sometimes defined as a “lord of the dead.” This mythic figure is depicted carrying a lantern or spectral fire, with which he guides lost and roaming spirits to the supernatural realm. His appearance is also associated with Will-o’-the-Wisp, or Welsh “Corpse Candles,” ghostly flames which move over bogs and through cemeteries.

The Feast of Samhain began its “conversion” to Halloween in 844, when Pope Gregory transferred the Christian feast for “All Saints” or “All Hallows” (meaning “holy”) from May 13 to November 1, to coincide with the Celtic “pagan” festival.

As centuries passed and traditions fused, the figure of Samhain guiding spirits with a spectral light was seemingly recast by Irish storytellers as a Christianized Jack-o’-Lantern. Incidentally, “jack” is no more than a term for any common man, and therefore Jack-o’-Lantern simply means “man with a lantern.”

The tragic legend of Jack holds that he was an inveterate prankster whose cunning ran afoul of the devil himself. Upon his death Jack finds that he is barred from heaven for never having performed an unselfish act, and similarly banned from hell. Doomed to a twilight existence between worlds, Jack carves a turnip and creates a lantern to guide his way, lighting it with an infernal ember coaxed from the devil.

The tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips and lighting them with embers or oil continued for centuries among Irish households. Moreover, like the medieval practice of carving gargoyles on cathedrals to scare off malevolent forces, the Irish carved ghastly visages into their turnips to ward off those evil spirits who roamed the countryside.

In time, of course, Irish immigrants brought their turnip carving to the new world, where they happily discovered a much larger gourd suitable for carving. And yet, one has to wonder what the ancient Celts and their Druid priests might have made of “punkin chunkin.” We will have to ask them when they show up again on the next Samhain.

Copyright 2013, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fall -- for the New Garden Year

The days are growing shorter and colder, and your mailbox is already full of winter catalogs. You might think your garden chores are finished for the season. Think again. The garden year actually begins with the misty, mellow days of autumn.

Spring only seems like the perfect time to resume work on your landscape. After all, garden centers are overflowing seductively with flowering plants, community groups plan Arbor Day celebrations and all around, you can hear lawnmowers chomping on fast-growing grass.

However, planting trees and shrubs in the spring gives the plants very little time to overcome transplant shock and develop essential root systems before summer's scorching heat and dry conditions.

Fall is the ideal and appropriate time to plant and transplant trees, shrubs and many perennials. In fact, it is important to get both broad-leaved and needle-leaved evergreens in the ground no later than mid-autumn. Species like holly, spruce, juniper, pine, fir and hemlock do not enter a dormant phase. Instead, they continue to transpire actively through their leaves during winter, which requires fully functioning root systems capable of taking water from the soil.

Planting as soon as possible allows roots to reestablish vital root hairs or fibers, which will begin supplying water. This is especially important for any plant with a root system that may have been damaged while being dug up for transplanting. Moreover, fall planting gives transplants two full growing seasons to become settled in before the dog days of summer. Water thoroughly after planting – and keep watering every week, if dry conditions ensue.

Planting and transplanting deciduous trees and shrubs — like maples, dogwoods, lilacs, hydrangea and viburnum — is best done after their leaves have fallen, signaling dormancy. Without the burden of supplying water and nutrients to leaves and branches, the tree can focus on growing new roots and preparing for blooming and leafing out in spring.

Fall is also the season for planting almost all hardy spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, scilla, crocuses, hyacinths and narcissus, which includes daffodils and jonquils. Some gardeners prefer digging individual holes for each bulb, especially with more formal species like tulips. Prepare a hole two-and-one-half times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. Before setting the bulb in place, toss in a handful of bonemeal or a dose of a “complete fertilizer,” then fill in the hole.

A better approach for other bulbs might be to treat them like perennials. Prepare a well-drained planting area or bed by removing any weeds and debris and topping the area with four to six inches of compost. Incorporate the compost into the existing soil with a shovel, spade or rototiller, working the amendment down into the top 10 or 12 inches of existing earth. Then insert the bulbs into the fluffy, organically-rich planting medium, preferably in groups or clumps — far more attractive than formal rows Many gardeners use this type of preparation to “naturalize” bulbs like crocus and daffodils, thereby creating a flow of bright, nodding blooms between trees on a lawn, or down a hillside. Such plantings, also called “drifts,” are often seen along parkways and in natural garden areas.

Rescue, renovate or rethink your lawn during the fall as well. If you have not worked on it in autumn, anything you do in spring will be too little and too late. Start by investing in a simple $5-10 soil test through your local cooperative extension service office. The test will provide complete and sound directions for applying lime and fertilizer. Remember that autumn is the best and sometimes the only time to feed most turfgrasses.

Like trees and shrubs, grass plants continue to develop roots throughout winter. Feeding the roots and aiding their development now will ensure a healthier, more drought-tolerant lawn come spring and summer.

Lawns could also do with a breath of fresh air about now. Consider contracting with a landscaper to core aerate the lawn, or rent an aerator and do it yourself. The process, which normally costs less than $100 regardless of who does the work, will remove plugs from the soil and allow air to infiltrate deeper into the ground and stimulate grass roots. The small holes will improve drainage and help nutrients and organic matter — such as grass clippings and leaves — work their way into the soil horizon.

You also can add valuable organic matter to your lawn by mulching or grinding up leaves with a mower. Otherwise, rake up fallen leaves and other debris and add them to the compost pile to prevent the spread of fungal diseases during the wet winter months.

If your lawn has been a disappointment, cut it down to size. Autumn is the perfect time to create new planting beds. Either remove sod with a shovel or leave it in place and smother it with cardboard and newspaper. Apply six, eight or more inches of mulch over the top of the bed and walk away. Worms and microorganisms will gobble up grass, roots and mulch while you sip hot cocoa indoors, leaving you with a brand-new planting area to play with in spring. Instead of complaining about your lawn, spend winter thumbing through colorful garden and seed catalogs.

Copyright 2013, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, October 11, 2013

Turning Over a New Leaf!

Glorious Autumn! Keat's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. It is also (alas) the season of the rake. It seems that you spend the better part of your precious weekends just raking up leaves. And just when you have gotten them under control, along comes a brisk gust of wind, a sprinkling of rain, and your lawn is covered all over again. Groan! Time to drag out the rake once more.

Here is a solution to simplify your fall and improve the long-term health and vigor of your lawn, trees, and garden beds:

Mulch ado about leaves.
There are a large number of expensive, awkward, and sometimes useful products being hawked to suck up your leaves and turn them into mulch. There are blower-vacs which blow leaves into a pile which you can then suck up and shred. There are chipper-shredders with elephant trunks that also allow you to suck up and shred leaves, although you have to rake them into piles first. And lawn jockeys with disposable incomes can check out the over $1,200 self-propelled machines which act like gas-powered vacuum cleaners on your lawn (watch out for small pets).

Mower for less.
These contraptions may not be the solution for you. However, if you are like most homeowners, you may not have realized that your lawn mower is already a deluxe leaf mulcher in its own right. And perhaps the easiest way to deal with leaves is to mow them right back into the lawn itself. Forget back-breaking raking and bagging!

Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Deeper "drifts" might need to be partially raked first -- or plan to run back and forth over the leaves several times. And do not worry if your model is not a dedicated mulching mower, any type of mower will do.

Start your do-it-yourself "mulchinator" by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the discharge chute on a rear-discharge machine. Then run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to start on the outside perimeter of your lawn and start mowing inward. This will keep the leaf-bits on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Of course, some folks like to "blow" shredded leaves into ground cover areas, under foundation plantings, or into wooded areas, adding to the organic content of soils there, which is another option.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

Stay out of the gutter!
It is important not to blow whole or shredded leaves into streets, storm drains, or nearby streams. Those innocent-looking particles can create problems for sensitive aquatic life by suffocating plants, fish eggs, and insect larvae, clouding the water, tying up oxygen, and altering the stream's pH (increasing toxic acidity). And that is also why you should never rake leaves into the street or gutter: leaf leachate always ends up in your neighborhood stream.

Too many leaves?
The swirling mass of leaves may seem daunting at first, but the final particle size will be one-tenth of the original leaf. This will make it easily digestible by worms and bacteria. Skeptics often voice a concern that shredding leaves into turf areas will overwhelm and kill their lawn. Not at all! In fact, research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania found that earthworms will actually drag a one-inch deep layer of organic matter into their burrows in just a few months, loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free.

Numerically, while you may imagine that all of those leaves will add up to far too much organic matter for your lawn, the fact is that 30 tall paper bags full of leaves, once shredded, will break down within a season to about one cubic yard of leaf mold or compost. Applied to your lawn as a topdressing, you would only be able to cover about 48 square feet (a six foot by eight foot patch). In fact, to topdress a lawn properly, most savvy gardeners have to import tons of commercial compost above and beyond the compost they make at home! Fear not: you will never have too many leaves or too much organic matter!

Your lawn needs leaves.
For decades, homeowners have bagged their grass clippings and leaves and sent them off to a landfill. And lawn chemical salespeople successfully and profitably sold the idea that healthy lawns needed bimonthly fertilizer and pesticide applications. Times have fortunately changed. The fact is that lawns and gardens can be maintained organically, for the most part, and without toxic inputs, just by recycling the natural materials already in place. When you bag up your clippings and leaves, you are short-circuiting the natural recycling process.

Think of the cycle this way: tree roots absorb water, minerals, and a host of nutrients from the soil. These materials are used to add girth to the tree trunk and boughs, set forth new branches, grow more roots, and grow leaves, flowers, and fruits or seeds. In a natural setting, such as a forest or woodlot, leaves, small twigs, blossoms, and fruits drop to the ground and slowly decompose, returning all of the original organic building blocks to the soil for future use.

What happens when you bag up leaves? How is that organic matter going to get back to the soil for the tree to use in coming years? You may think that by fertilizing your lawn you are returning everything the tree needs. Wrong! Of the more than one dozen major and minor nutrients that plants need to grow, how many are in your bag of fertilizer? And what about the organic matter that creates humus, the very soul of soil itself?

Bagging leaves and grass is equivalent to strip mining. The minerals, nutrients, and organic matter are continually stripped away year after year. Eventually, without those vital materials, your trees, your garden, and your lawn will start to suffer. It is time to undo this damage by getting that organic matter back into the soil. And you can easily start just by mowing your leaves into your lawn.

It's in the bagger!
There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to take the shredded material and start using it to mulch some of your trees and shrubs. This is also true for gardeners with some of the fancier shredding equipment. Apply up to four inches deep, and your mulch layer will also act as a blanket to prevent frost upheaval in planting beds, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials. You will also be feeding and protecting your plants and preventing weed growth for almost a full year.

A compost pile or bin is another excellent half-way point for shredded leaves. Those smaller leaf particles break down in less than half the time of whole leaves, and you can fit a prodigious quantity of shredded leaves into your bin. Also, if you find that you are cutting some grass while shredding leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials to ensure a hot, fast-working compost pile.

Recommended chores.
Mulching leaves into lawns is just the first step toward a naturally healthy lawn and environment. You should also consider aerating your lawn by either renting a core-aerating machine (about $70) or hiring a lawn care firm ($75 and up depending on overall lawn size). Aerating breathes life into compacted soils and helps organic matter filter deeper into subsoils and root zones. You should also test your soil with a kit from your county or municipality's local Cooperative Extension Service (costs are about ten dollars) to determine proper nutrient application rates. Your soil test will also indicate the type and quantity of lime your lawn needs; local soils are naturally acidic. And don't forget: fall is the only beneficial time to consider feeding your lawn -- only use a slow-release or organic nutrient source to feed the soil and your lawn's roots all winter long.

Copyright 2013, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Autumn Leaves Feed Healthy Lawns

Autumn is perhaps the most mellow and reflective season of the year. Shorter days encourage reading in the evening while crisp air and colorful vistas invite weekend hikes and trips to the countryside. Regrettably, too many people waste their precious weekends raking leaves into piles or shatter the quiet peace of sunny afternoons with leaf blowers. There is a better solution.

Rather than trying to rid your lawn of fallen leaves, you should actually consider leaving them where they are. It is nature’s way to recycle, after all. Certainly no one is raking up and bagging the leaves which fall in wooded parks and forests. Given a bit of time, all of the leaves are transformed by worms, bacteria and other organisms into rich humus, which will continue to feed trees, shrubs, and other plants year after year for millennia.

Your yard is simply an extension of the same natural process. Trees around your property draw nutrients and minerals from the soil, converting those elements into new leaves and branches. By raking up those leaves, you essentially short-circuit the natural cycle by which nutrients are returned to the soil. After a number of years, the soil will lose its fertility. In fact, carting off leaves and grass clippings is akin to strip mining, ultimately affecting the health of everything you are trying to grow.

Spreading costly fertilizers on your lawn may restore some nutrients, but not all of the vital minerals and organic matter needed for healthy, vigorous plants. Leaves, on the other hand, contain all of the nutrients and micronutrients your lawn needs. The trick is getting those leaves back into the soil without smothering your lawn in the process.

Enter the lawnmower. For the past ten years, almost all new lawnmowers sold have been mulching mowers. After decades of bagging clippings, a majority of homeowners have learned that it is best to “grasscycle” their lawn clippings when they mow. Clippings left in place quickly decompose and provide nutrients to keep the lawn healthy.

Your lawnmower can now do double-duty as a leaf-mulcher. Mower blades can easily shred whole leaves into small pieces, approximately one-tenth their original size. Your once-daunting bounty of leaves will disappear into a thin layer of tiny particles easily digested by worms and bacteria. In fact, a healthy earthworm population is capable of dragging a one-inch layer of organic matter down into their underground burrows in just a few months. Unseen by human eyes, they are diligently loosening and enriching your soil, and feeding the roots of your lawn for free. Perhaps you should think of your mower as a food processor for worms!

Begin your regimen of leaf-mulching by setting the mower to a normal three-inch height. Remove bagging attachments and block off the chute on a rear-discharge machine. Run your mower over the lawn while walking slowly, giving the mower blades plenty of time to shred up the leaves. Please note that mower-mulching works best when leaves are relatively dry and are no more than one inch deep. Do not wait until every last leaf has fallen before getting started.

If your mower has a side discharge chute, you will probably want to begin on the outside perimeter of your lawn, blowing your chopped leaves onto unmowed areas, and continue mowing inward. This will keep the leaf particles on the lawn, and even allow you to mow over them a few more times. Some savvy gardeners like to direct the discharge of shredded leaves into ground cover areas or under foundation plantings where organic matter is also welcome.

If your first pass over the lawn has left a significant quantity of whole leaves, go back over the leaves while mowing at a right angle to the first cut, perhaps walking even more slowly. Leaves take more work than grass, especially if they are somewhat damp.

There are other options and uses for some of your shredded leaves. For example, if your mower does have a bagging attachment, you might want to apply the shredded material as a mulch two to four inches thick under your trees and shrubs. Do not pile the mulch directly against tree trunks.

Shredded leaves can also be applied to other planting beds, such as perennial borders and herb gardens. Avoid applying mulch until after the first hard freeze. A two to three inch mulch layer will help maintain a uniform soil temperature all winter and protect tender root systems. The mulch blanket will also prevent frost upheaval caused by frequent thawing and refreezing, which is especially damaging to bulbs, tuberous flowers, and some half-hardy perennials.

Naturally, the leaf mulch will also feed your plants by recycling nutrients, conserve soil moisture during dry spells, and prevent the emergence of weeds.

You can also add your shredded leaves to a compost pile or bin. The smaller leaf particles decompose in about 75 percent of the time required by whole leaves, and you can further add a astonishing volume of shredded leaves into the bin, which is useful for properties with numerous mature trees. In addition, if you find that you are cutting some grass while running over the leaves, you are probably creating the perfect blend of materials to ensure an effective, fast-working compost pile. Your shredding efforts may even reward you with nutrient-rich compost ready for use in the Spring.

Copyright 2013, Joseph M. Keyser