By Suzanne DeJohn

Fall leaves are like a big load of free organic fertilizer strewn about your yard. If those nutrients were bagged and sold, you'd pay money for them. In your yard, they're free -- except for the labor of gathering them.

Collect the leaves and compost them, and you have a valuable soil amendment. But leave them where they lay, and they will likely smother lawn grasses, blow across your walkways, and generally annoy the neighbors. But before you head out to the yard, ponder this list.

Ten Things to Do with Fall Leaves

1. Make a big pile of leaves in your front yard -- a BIG pile -- and jump in it. With or without your kids. When your neighbors stop to stare, invite them to jump in, too.

2. Run your mower back and forth through a layer of leaves to break them up, then use as mulch in your perennial garden.

3. Contact your city or county to find out if there is a leaf composting project in your area. Find out when you can start picking up compost.

4. Take long walks around your neighborhood and make a mental note of very tidy yards with big trees. These people probably rake and bag their leaves. Plan to contact them to ask if you can have their leaves for your compost pile.

5. Make a scarecrow by stuffing leaves into old clothes -- or even burlap bags (your local coffee shop might have some). Set the scarecrow in a lawn chair by your front door to amuse the mailman.

6. Fallen leaves provide cover for overwintering beneficial insects, such as lacewings and ground beetles. You can serve both your need for a neat garden and the insects' need for winter homes by creating refugia: make envelopes of chicken wire, fill them with fallen leaves and sticks, and place them in a sheltered location. (Make your refugia into creative shapes, and you have garden art, as well!)

7. Collect the prettiest leaves and iron them between sheets of waxed paper. Mount on matboard and frame them to enjoy year-round.

8. Pile leaves in the paths between your vegetable garden beds. They'll provide a dry walking surface, and next spring you can rake the decomposed leaves into your planting areas.

9. Add fallen leaves to indoor worm composting bins. They introduce key decomposers, such as springtails and microbes, to the worm bin ecosystem that help the worms do their jobs better.

10. Use attractive fall leaves, unshelled nuts, branches with berries, and other fall garden treasures to make creative dining table centerpieces. Make placecards by writing dinner guests' names on sturdy leaves using a gold or glitter pen.

Now aren't you excited to get out and face those wonderful, versatile autumn leaves?

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