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Earth Sense: Better ways to dispose of leaves than burning
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Today is the last day of fall. In many households, this means there is also a last batch of tree leaves and pine straw to remove from grass and various other areas.

Rooftops with an angle, like a lean-to or an adjacent garage, can accumulate lots of this debris. It clogs gutters and downspouts, and in time, makes shingles deteriorate. Stopped-up gutters lead to overflow during rain, and the splash hitting the ground is harmful to wooden walls.

An old habit, still seen frequently, is to rake up all the leaves and pine needles and set fire to them. Some even use gasoline “to get the fire started.” Gasoline should only be used as a motor fuel, and any other usage runs a hazard of severe burns.

But the leaf fires themselves are a bad idea, too. They produce unneeded carbon dioxide, which is the main factor in the climatic change that’s in progress. A more immediate effect is the smoke they produce.

Because fire is hot, and smoke rises, it seems like a good idea to burn leaves in the evening when the air is cool.

However, that’s exactly the time to avoid because temperature inversions build up frequently this time of the year.

Cool air accumulates near the ground, and its boundary with warmer air above prevents the smoke from rising and leaving the area. Instead, it spreads near ground level and invades adjacent homes, which may not be a welcome effect.

Gardeners call leaves “the brown gold.” Like other plant matter, they are full of nutrients to the soil once they decompose. The very best disposal method is to make a compost pile.

Along with vegetable scraps and wood chips, this takes a few months to mature. Bacteria acting in the pile turn the decomposing plant debris into free organic fertilizer, which can then feed the garden.

If this is too much work, using a mulching mower is another solution. Mulching blades, usually available as an accessory, can be substituted for the regular mower blades. They hack the cuttings up into tiny pieces, which decompose on the lawn and replenish nutrients.

A few passes over the leaf-covered grass will take care of the problem. This also makes it unnecessary to bag leaves and send them to the landfill, because Hall County’s four landfills already have plenty of other waste to deal with.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.