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Reeves: Leaves on the lawn

By Randy Reeves
Dec. 17, 2017 at 4 a.m.


Do you have pecan, bur oak and red oak leaves all over your lawn? There is no need to rake and bag them. Run the lawn mower over the leaves and they will decompose quickly, adding nutrients and soil-building organic material back to the lawn.

If you just cannot stand the look of leaves on the lawn, even for the three or four weeks that it takes for them to decompose, you still should not send them to the landfill. Leaves are too valuable to the environment to bury them in equally valuable landfill space. Use the leaves as mulch.

Three or four inches of leaves over the root system of newly planted shrubs or trees increases the growth rate up to 40% over plants with lawn grass growing up to the trunks. Mulch reduces evaporation from the soil (water conservation) and keeps the soil cool, which reduces the likelihood of cotton root rot. Mulch also reduces weeds, which makes it unnecessary to use the string mower near the trunk of the tree.

Leaves are my favorite mulch for the vegetable garden. Four inches of leaves in the rows between the veggies reduce weeds, keep the soil cool and conserve water, but they also allow you to walk in the garden without excessive soil compaction. Till or shovel the leaves into the soil after every crop and you are refreshing the soil with organic material each time. Remember to add some extra nitrogen to the soil whenever brown or coarse organic material is incorporated into the soil. I use two cups of lawn fertilizer per 100 square feet, and it seems to work well. The extra nitrogen reduces any nitrogen deficit when the leaves start to decompose.

Another good place for leaves is in a compost pile. A wire enclosure six feet in diameter makes a great depository for leaves, weeds, fine pruning's, grass clippings, and garden refuse. If you have about half green and half brown material and you wet the pile every week, it will form compost in two or three months. If you are more casual about the effort and do not worry much about ratios, air or moisture, the pile will decompose in six months. Again, a little nitrogen fertilizer can replace the green material. Compost, the product of the compost pile, is a homogenous, clean smelling material that makes a great potting soil or soil additive. Use it as part of your raised bed garden mix for superior production of flowers and vegetables.

Even those of us with large lots and large gardens do not produce enough compost to meet our needs. This time of the year through the winter and early spring, compost is especially useful as a lawn dressing. Applied one-half inch deep over the lawn, it is a great tonic for a stressed lawn. Combine the compost application with aeration and the compost infiltrates into the root area to contribute to water penetration, gas removal, and nutrient efficiency as it addresses compaction.

I do not recommend using a top dressing with sand added, unless you are as interested in leveling the lawn as revitalizing it. Sand is an inert material that does not contribute anything to the process, except mass.

If you still do not want your leaves, give them to a neighbor. Anything is better than sending them to the landfill.

Dry conditions

October and November were two of the driest on record, and much of the state appears to be facing a continued dry spell through winter, according to the state climatologist.

John Nielsen-Gammon, of College Station, said conditions were excessively dry throughout the typically wet fall months, and dry conditions are expected to continue through the next several weeks at least.

Drought conditions aren't close to those experienced during the 2011 dry spell that gripped Texas for almost two years as seen in this photo of a livestock tank in East Texas. But soil moisture levels have been dropping, and La Nina conditions likely mean a warmer, drier winter.

The lack of rain is causing concerns about fire danger, poorly developed winter pastures, including wheat, and dropping surface water levels for livestock, according to reports from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agents in areas that have missed rain events.

"When you get a dry spell it takes a while for soils to dry out, but they do get there," he said. "Take the areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, you saw extreme flooding in some areas and not much since then."

Nielsen-Gammon said October-November 2017 was the 12th-driest since the state started keeping records in 1895. September and October are typically wetter months for Texas, he said, but rain hasn't materialized.

No single county in Texas has received at least 4 inches of rain anywhere within its borders since the beginning of October, he said. Drier areas of the state, including North Central, West and South Texas, have received less than 2 inches over that period. Areas from the Winter Garden to Big Bend and from Lubbock to the Red River have received less than half an inch over those 60 days.

Warmer, sunny days, winds and lack of rain are drawing a growing portion of the state into drought conditions, he said. The drought monitor shows 35 percent of the state is in drought, up from just 2.5 percent a month ago, he said.

"October is usually one of the wettest months and oftentimes is extremely wet, but it's been fairly dry and the forecast going forward into winter doesn't look promising," he said. "Overall for the next couple of weeks, it looks like most of the state will average less than half an inch of rainfall."

The lack of intense or significant rain events that would produce runoff once it does rain could also be a concern for ranchers who rely on surface tanks for livestock water as winter progresses, he said. Runoff is contingent on soil moisture levels and rain intensity, but it typically takes 1-2 inches of rain to saturate the ground enough to create runoff or produce a flash amount that could replenish watering holes.

Nielsen-Gammon said it was too early to draw any comparisons to the state's last significant dry spell when a dry fall and winter in 2010 stretched into spring and summer 2011. But La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, which translates into warmer, drier air for much of the state, are expected through winter.

"Its effect will vary by region and local conditions when it comes to forage, crops and surface water, but it's been hard so far, particularly on winter wheat in Northeast Texas because they are well below normal for rainfall," he said. "Fields are having difficulty emerging and getting established."

— Randy Reeves is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent for Gregg County. Join him on his horticultural blog with the Longview News-Journal, "Talk Across the Fence" at www.news-journal.com.

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