It is an annual rite of fall for those who have trees – autumn leaves galore are on the lawn, and a decision must be made about the best way to deal with them. It may seem like an easy question to answer, but there are ways you can help protect the environment and save money at the same time while cleaning up the leaves.

Bagging leaves means they take up extra space in a landfill and also remove a great source of nutrients from your lawn. The Texas Agrilife Extension Office estimates that half of landscape waste that is bagged and left at the curb is composed of tree leaves, which can burden community resources when the leaves are carted away.

However, simply leaving the leaves on the lawn in thick layers can smother the grass underneath, in addition to leaving the yard looking unkempt.

If you live near a reservoir or the river, dumping the leaves in the water is definitely bad idea. The extra nutrients in the water can encourage the growth of more algae, which can cause fish kills or lead to odor problems in drinking water.

Mulching or composting are the best ways to dispose of the leaves. Mulching the leaves with a lawnmower helps to create a natural fertilizer for your lawn. Leaving the leaves on your lawn in the form of mulch shouldn’t smother the lawn like a thicker layer of leaves would, but it will help reduce water evaporation from the soil, slow down weed growth, moderate the soil temperature and help prevent erosion and soil compaction. Leaves that are shredded through the mulching process will decompose more quickly and will likely stay in place better than unmulched leaves.

Raking the leaves and moving them to a compost pile will allow them to turn into a rich source of nutrients that can later be spread on the lawn or garden. Leaves that decompose in compost bins or compost piles create rich nutrients and can be placed in vegetable gardens, flower beds and around trees and shrubs.

The Agrilife Extension Service recommends applying a 3 to 6 inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs. In annual and perennial flower beds, a 2 to 3 inch mulch is considered to be ideal. You can place a thick layer of mulched leaves between rows of plants that will create a layer of nutrients and also provide an all-weather walkway that will allow better access to your garden when it is wet. Mulches also help nourish new landscapes and improve their chance of survival.

More information on leaf disposal, including specifics on composting, can be found here.