Tag Archives: leaves

Before You Pick Up That Rake

Oh, leaves. There’s so much we love about you. The first sight of your flowers in the spring; the sound you make when you blow in the breeze during summer; your brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange come fall. And then you drop to the ground and become another thing on our to-do list.

If this sounds familiar, don’t fret—we can help. Before you break out the rake, check out our top 5 uses for fall leaves.

Leave Them Be

Why: Leaves act as a home for many different types of beneficial insects (ground and rove beetles, spiders, caterpillars), as well as amphibians such as wood frogs. A layer of leaves also serves as a root protection for trees and shrubs by keeping in moisture and moderating the temperature of the soil. And if that’s not reason enough, you will also attract more birds, which rely on leaves for shelter, nesting material, and water.

How: Leave behind a thin layer of leaves in areas that people don’t walk on (you wouldn’t want anyone slipping). If you’re worried about your grass being smothered, chop the leaves with a lawn mower.

Good to know: Researchers from Michigan State University have found that chopped leaves left on lawns may actually help suppress dandelions.

Make Mulch

Why: A less expensive and taxing option to raking, bagging, and disposing, leaf mulch mimics a natural forest ecosystem, making for excellent nutrient recycling.

How: When the leaves begin to fall, mow your lawn as you normally would. This will shred the leaves, making them decompose faster and a bit easier to pack around the bases of plants. In vegetable and perennial gardens, you can keep the leaves whole, and then turn them over come spring. Or, if you like, you could rake them and put them in a shredder.

Good to know: Songbirds love leaf mulch since it harbors lots of nutritious bugs!

Compost Them

Why: Any gardener can extol the merits of compost. Good compost requires a mix of high nitrogen (grass clippings, food waste) and high carbon components. The best bet for the latter? Fallen leaves.

How: Scoop them up whole and add them to your compost pile. Not only do they add bulk but leaves make for good aeration. Don’t have a compost pile yet? Leaves are a great way to get started. To speed up the decomposing process, you can shred them a little.

Good to know: Leaves that have been left on the ground for awhile bring useful decomposing microorganisms to the compost pile. A good excuse to put off the yard work!

Have Fun With Them

Why: There’s nothing more thrilling than jumping into a big pile of leaves (and that goes for both kids and adults). Note: Be aware of ticks. Wear light colored clothes and check yourself for ticks after playing outside.

How: In addition to a good old-fashioned leaf pile, you can make a scarecrow, add leaves to vases or window boxes, preserve brightly colored fallen leaves, or make leaf rubbings.

Good to know: Some people believe it’s good luck to catch a falling leaf before it touches the ground. Slap the lucky leaf against your forehead, turn around in three complete circles, and then make a wish!

Learn More About Them

Why: Think a leaf is simply just a leaf? Think again. There are compound and simple leaves, broad leaves and needle leaves, leafstalks, leaf teeth, and leaf veins. By learning more about the leaves you see every day, you will gain more appreciation for the natural world around you.

How: Pick up one of the countless books written on the subject. A few of our favorites, which can be found at the Mass Audubon Shop at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, include: The Sibley Guide to Trees, National Geographic Kids Ultimate Explorer Field Guide: Trees, and Trees of Eastern North America.

Good to know: While we now know science is behind leaves changing color, countless legends have been linked to this fall phenomenon, including Native American lore that said when the Great Bear in the sky was killed, the bear’s blood fell on the forests, turning some of the leaves red.

Photo via iStockPhoto

The Science Behind Foliage

By now, we’re well into foliage season, and many of us have likely done some leaf peeping, as it is shaping up to be a year of spectacular colors (see Foliage Forecast below for why). When you’re checking out nature’s painterly display, do you ever wonder why the leaves change color in the fall?

To get the answer, the first thing to know is that leaf color comes from three pigments:

  1. Chlorophyll. Needed by trees to convert sunlight into food (known as photosynthesis), chlorophyll also provides the green hue to leaves.
  2. Carotenoids. The same thing that gives bananas and sweet potatoes their yellow and orange hues makes leaves golden as well.
  3. Anthocyanins. This one is responsible for the vibrant red and purple tones in leaves as well as raspberries and eggplants.

Since daylight hours are longest during the summer, an abundance of light is available to trees. This means they’re performing photosynthesis optimally and ultimately, storing energy as carbohydrates. The result: lots of chlorophyll, and gorgeous, bright green leaves we see in the spring and summer.

Carotenoids are in leaves during the growing season as well, but we don’t get to see the colors until the fall since so much chlorophyll is present. The anthocyanins responsible for fall colors are produced in the leaves only in autumn.

As the nights begin to lengthen and our daylight hours decrease, trees begin to prepare for winter, and respond to decreasing sunlight by producing less chlorophyll, and eventually stop photosynthesis to lay dormant through the frozen season. As chlorophyll breaks down, carotenoids are able to show through, creating the vibrant display of yellows, oranges, and browns.

The visibility and brightness of the red hues you might see is determined by temperature, soil moisture, and direct sunlight. During warm, sunny fall days, leaves produce lots of glucose, or sugar, but the cool evening temperatures cause gradual closing of the veins in the leaf. This keeps the sugar sap from running down into the tree branches and trunk. More light means more sugar, and the combination of these things spurs the production of anthocyanins in certain trees like maples, which show gorgeous reds, purples, and crimson.

Foliage Forecast

The most stunning and varied-hue foliage displays come from a warm, wet spring season, a summer season that is not too hot or dry, and an autumn with warm, sunny days and crisp nights. This year, we have been experiencing exactly that weather pattern, and are predicted to be in for an absolutely gorgeous transition into winter, unless we experience some warmer and wetter than normal weather right about now.

Tree Color Guide

Different trees yield different leaf colors. Here’s a short list of what you might see when you’re leaf peeping:

  • Birch – golden yellow
  • Dogwood – bright red
  • Oaks – russet & red
  • Sugar maple – vermilion or orange
  • Red maple – deep red to nearly purple

If you’d like to learn more, please join us on an upcoming fall foliage program. Happy leaf peeping!

Photo © Nicole Lemay Text by Emma Evans