Keep your mind on the gutter

Fall is a great time to prep your lawn for spring -- and prevent algae blooms next summer

Have you ever parked on a city street in October, stepped out of your car and landed ankle-deep in leaf mush that's accumulated in the street? This fall, as you are cleaning the gutters on your house, think of those gutters in the street. Although city ordinance prohibits raking leaves into the street, it is still a common practice.

A common misconception is that the stormwater flowing through storm sewers is treated before it enters lakes and streams. However, water that runs off hard surfaces such as sidewalks, parking lots and streets flows directly into lakes and streams through the storm-sewer system.

That means leaves, grass clippings, oil from vehicles, fertilizer, pet waste and litter can eventually end up in our lakes and rivers. This type of water pollution is called "non-point source pollution." This pollution is a widespread problem, but there are simple steps we can all take this fall to make a difference.

Leaves: bag or recycle

When it comes to fall lawn care, fallen leaves can be a big problem, especially if you have many trees in your neighborhood. One disposal option is to bag them and place them curbside. The city's Solid Waste and Recycling Department picks up leaves until mid-November.

You also may want to consider "recycling" your leaves by composting them or using them as mulch on your garden. There is a lot of good information available on how to compost. Both the Solid Waste folks and the University of Minnesota Extension Service have composting information available on their websites. Neighborhood libraries and garden centers are good places to find books and other printed information on composting.

A frustrating thing about composting with leaves is they tend to mat together, resulting in slow decomposition. Shredding the leaves reduces your leaf pile's bulk and also cuts decomposition time.

There are two shredding methods you can use:

  • Chop them up with your lawn mower;

  • Shred them in a leaf shredder.

    Mixing the shredded leaves with grass clippings, small twigs (less than a half-inch diameter) and kitchen wastes (vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds), will lead to a compost pile that decomposes quickly and does not smell. However, there are certain things that should not be added to your compost pile, such as pet waste, meat, whole eggs and dairy products. These materials can attract rodents to your compost pile.

    A well-maintained compost pile will be ready in two to four weeks. Compost started in the fall will not be ready until next spring. Once your compost is finished, it will look like soil and have a nice earthy smell to it. While it does take some effort, compost is well worth it. Added to your lawn or garden, compost greatly improves soil by contributing organic matter, reducing the need for fertilizers in your garden.

    Fertilizer: be careful

    Another important fall lawn-care tip is that mid- to late-October is the best time of the year for fertilizing. Fertilizer applied at this time will be available to grass plants in the spring for growth.

    Lawn fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The City of Minneapolis has passed an ordinance restricting the sale and use of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus. Phosphorus from fertilizers and organic debris washing into storm sewers causes algae blooms in lakes.

    The three numbers printed on the fertilizer bag, referred to as the "N-P-K" formulation, indicate the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (element symbol: K) found in the fertilizer. Phosphorus is already plentiful in Minnesota soils and does not really need to be added to lawns as a component in fertilizer.

    If you do accidentally spill fertilizer on a hard surface, sweep it up and reuse it, instead of leaving it or washing it off the pavement with a garden hose.

    These are just two things you can do this fall to help improve water quality. All year long, you should also pick up after your pet, sweep litter and debris up from the sidewalks and streets and keep motor oils from spilling on hard surfaces to help keep our waters clean in the City of Lakes.