Thursday, December 9, 2021
Dec. 9, 2021

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Experts extol benefits of leaves to Clark County yards, gardens, compost

By , Columbian staff writer
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H & H Wood Recyclers, shown here in 2020, is among the sites participating in this year's leaf voucher program. But use as many leaves as you can as mulch before hauling the excess away.
H & H Wood Recyclers, shown here in 2020, is among the sites participating in this year's leaf voucher program. But use as many leaves as you can as mulch before hauling the excess away. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Nature keeps dropping little gifts upon us, and we keep grumbling and sweating while treating them like trash.

Take it easier, today’s natural gardeners recommend. Leaves are nature’s free, weed-suppressing, nutrient-providing mulch material and ground cover. Plus, they deliver themselves to your yard — no Amazon truck required.

“Leaves are friends,” said Vancouver urban forester Charles Ray. “Leaving leaves in landscape beds and around the base of trees promotes healthy soils by nutrient cycling, helps retain moisture and is a natural weed control.”

OK, nature does tend to shower us with way too many of those helpful little friends. There’s no shame in banishing your leaf overloads in a manner that gets their goodness recycled back into nature.

It’s more shameful to dump leaves in neighborhood streets, where they clog storm drains and cause floods, or put them in the trash so they wind up in landfills.

Get Coupons

Here’s how to get coupons for free leaf disposal:

 Print out a coupon from, or

 Clip a coupon out of Waste Connections’ newsletter, which will be sent to all residences in Clark County in October.

 Call Vancouver Solid Waste at 360-487-7160 or email to have a coupon sent to you by mail.

There are four participating designated leaf disposal sites this year.

 H & H Wood Recyclers, 8401 N.E. 117th Ave.; 360-892-2805.

 McFarlane’s Bark, 8806 N.E. 117th Ave.; 360-892-6125.

 Triangle Resources, 612 S.E. Union St., Camas; 360-834-7253.

 West Van Materials Recovery Center, 6601 N.W. Old Lower River Road; 360-737-1727.

In 2018, 10.5 million tons of leaves and other yard debris went into landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s not just a big waste of natural energy and material, it also generates methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Instead, dispose of excess leaves in your regular yard-debris or organics cart. You can also drop off leaf loads free, Oct. 1 through the end of the year, at four different recycling sites with coupons provided via a Vancouver-Clark County partnership. All the leaves you drop off there will be turned back into nutrient-rich, organic compost that’s available for purchase. In 2020 this program took in 15,414 cubic yards of local leaves, according to Vancouver solid waste analyst Liz Erickson.

Natural recycling

But before you bag up and get rid of all that organic material, try using as much as you can at home, bolstering your garden’s overall health and preparing for winter. Leaves are the ideal mulch, providing a moisture-retaining, weed-discouraging top layer while slowly decomposing, adding nutrients to the soil.

All of which only extends their usefulness. Throughout the growing season, leaves serve as deciduous trees’ and plants’ solar panels, absorbing sunlight to generate and store energy in the same chemical-energy compounds that our own bodies use: sugars and starches. When days get shorter and cooler, those nutrients move from leaves to trunk and down into the root system to prepare for winter dormancy.

“Storage in the roots makes these nutrients available to the plant as it wakes up in springtime,” writes Beth Goodnight, WSU Clark County Master Gardener, in a recent newsletter article.

Then, to conserve energy and shed weight, deciduous trees let all those used-up, dried-up, bug-eaten solar panels drop.

“Nature prefers they be left there,” Goodnight writes. Gardeners who don’t go along are just making work for themselves.

“Clearing leaves off plant root systems forces gardeners to do work and spend money … providing food and weed suppression,” Goodnight writes. “Do you see (Mother Nature) putting down compost, wood chips, or using weed barrier fabric? Of course not. She has designed an elegant recycling system.”

Whole or shredded

Goodnight endorses the lazy gardener’s way: Make your underlying tree and ornamental beds as large as the canopy overhead. That way you can just let leaves lie where they fall.

“This practice requires the least amount of human effort,” she writes. “It closely mimics what Mother Nature does in her forests.”

Goodnight recommends a layer of at least 4 to 6 inches of leaves, which will pack down over the season.

When leaves are on the lawn, just mow over them and let them be, Ray said. That adds nutrients to the grass, too. Just make sure the leaves are thoroughly shredded, and don’t overdo it.

Goodnight recommends no more than a half-inch thickness of well-shredded leaves over grass.

Well-shredded leaves make great bottom or outermost layers in plant pots and flower-bulb holes, where they’ll slowly break down and build to the soil.

Leaves also make an ideal brown additive to your compost pile. A mountain of leaves will eventually become its own rich, slimy compost if you can stand to pile it, contain it and wait. Local earthworms will love you for that.

Leaves make good weed-suppressing ground cover for vegetable beds, Goodnight writes, but shouldn’t be mixed directly into that soil because they are high in carbon and aren’t fully finished compost. Leaves that touch the soil will compost, but remove leaves that haven’t composted in spring.

Remove when diseased

There’s just one caveat to all these great leaf uses: damp ground cover can nurture and spread foliar diseases, that is, leaf spots and funguses that are encouraged by damp soil.

“The only time you do not want to leave leaves onsite,” Ray said, “is when you are dealing with a foliar diseases such as black spot or anthracnose, which is common on flowering cherries, plums and dogwoods. The best management strategy for foliar diseases would be to remove leaves. This will prevent the fungus from over-wintering and re-infecting plants the following spring.”