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Winter predictors and fall leaf management

By John Fulton

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[October 12, 2011]  Winter predictors -- We've all heard about the woolly bear caterpillar as a winter severity predictor, and with as many different interpretations of the woolly bear as there are, somebody is always right. One version says the larger the middle (orange segment), the milder the winter. Of course, you have to have a banded woolly bear to have the different colors. Another one says if they are white, this means a lot of snow. All black means a cold winter. In reality, there are several species, and the younger ones are usually white or light-colored, and they turn dark as they age.

Other predictors of a tough or cold winter have included plentiful berries and nuts, very bushy squirrel tails, tough apple skins, high ant hills in July, and more. I can usually look at the propane or natural gas price and predict things just as well. When gas prices are high, we're going to use a lot more of it...

Anyway, here goes with something a little more useful.

Fall leaf management

With a little bit of wind, or a lot of wind this past weekend, the leaves have begun dropping in large numbers. This brings up one of those age-old questions: "What do I do with all those leaves?" The simple answer is to give you three options: leave them (no pun intended), remove them or chop them up.

If you decide to let nature take its course, letting leaves lie brings benefits and some problems. Many of the benefits are associated with your labor, or lack of it. The major non-labor benefit is when leaves collect in flower beds and around shrubs to provide mulch for those plants. Problems generally develop where deep piles of leaves may smother grass or harbor diseases, causing large dead areas to deal with next spring. Of course, if you are the only resident in a neighborhood who doesn't rake leaves, you may also be talked about at many social functions this fall.

Removing leaves is generally done by raking or bagging with a mower attachment. This makes your lawn look neat, prevents problems for lawns and gives you a workout if you are manually raking. The main problems are the time, labor and disposal of the leaves when they are piled.

Chopping leaves means reducing the size. Benefits include less smothering, quicker breakdown and less labor. The main drawback comes with deep piles that still should be removed because of trouble with shredding and smothering.

One thing to consider is the type of leaves. There is a huge difference in oak leaves and silver maple leaves. It's difficult to have smothering problems with oak leaves, while silver maple leaves may smother with a very thin layer. Many green leaves were blown down with the high winds. These green leaves will tend to smother more than the dry, rigid types will.

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What do you do with the leaves you've accumulated? There are several possibilities. Many municipalities, Lincoln included, prohibit burning for the most part. Besides the fire risk, the respiratory issues for affected people can be life-threatening. Raking leaves into the street, unless requested by the city for cleanup, usually results in clogging storm sewers.

Options remaining include composting, using as a mulch, tilling into garden and flower bed areas, and hauling to the city landscape recycling dump. There may even be some private collection services that will take bagged leaves to a recycling center.

Partial composting, and the subsequent use as a mulch, is one of the best solutions. Simply construct an enclosure at least 2 feet cubed, place leaves in it and cover the top with hardware cloth or wire laid on it and weighted down. The resulting mulch may be used next spring on flower beds, gardens, around trees and shrubs, or spread back on gardens or lawns.

One thing to consider is removing the leaves from around the foundation of the house. The decaying leaves provide a hiding place or food sources for nuisance pests such as ladybugs and millipedes. The removal from directly around the house may reduce the number of these insects making their way into your home.

[By JOHN FULTON, University of Illinois Extension]

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