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Minnesota yards and gardens are currently blanketed in yellow, red and brown leaves, fallen from trees as autumn makes way for winter. The annual sight leads to the inevitable question: What should a person do with all those leaves?

Probably unsurprisingly, there isn't a straightforward answer. It depends on the attributes of the yard, the owner's goals and where the leaves fell. 

We'll get into all that in a moment, but first, we want to make one thing clear: Fallen leaves are not inherently bad. There's a reason the slogan "Leave the leaves" exists.

A layer of leaf litter provides habitat for invertebrates and small mammals, sheltering them during the cold winter months, the National Wildlife Federation says. This, in turn, benefits other wildlife up the food chain. (E.g., caterpillars hide in the leaves, birds eat the caterpillars.) Dead leaves also contain nutrients that can fertilize lawns and gardens, and even suppress unwanted weeds.

However, letting mountains of fallen leaves sit atop wet turfgrass can have drawbacks, such as leaf mold. And tossing leaves in the regular trash to be landfilled is not only illegal in Minnesota, it's also terrible for the environment as they release the greenhouse gas methane while decomposing, according to the MPCA. (Burning leaves also creates air pollution, so avoid that as well.)

So, what should you do? Here's a quick guide.

Leaves on lawns

Thick layers of untouched, wet leaves can "smother" lawn grass and potentially lead to mold. Small amounts of leaf mold aren't a big deal and the risk of developing serious allergic complications is extremely low — but inhaling vast amounts of mold spores can be dangerous.

That doesn't mean a yard has to be spotless.

Some leaf litter is just fine. It will decompose and benefit the soil below. Shredding the leaves with a lawn mower or mulcher can help, as it breaks down more quickly and is less likely to blow into a nearby storm drain (more on that later). 

If you do need to collect leaves, use them in a compost bin or pile (read more here) or make sure they are getting taken to a composting site, not a landfill.

This might become difficult soon as cities will be stopping their garden waste collections, so one alternative could be to take your leaves onto a garden bed (more on that below).

In addition, avoid gas-powered leaf blowers, which are shockingly damaging polluters.

Leaves on sidewalks, in alleys, or in the street

Fallen leaves on concrete are very problematic. While the phosphorus, nitrogen and other nutrients they contain can benefit soil, when on a sidewalk or stuck in a gutter, those nutrients have nowhere to go.

Instead, the nutrients get washed down storm drains, then end up in rivers, streams and lakes. In the water, these nutrients break down and lead to more algae growth, which reduces oxygen levels and kills aquatic life, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization explains.

Bottom line: If leaves are on concrete, do your best to get them elsewhere.

Leaves in a garden bed

Dead leaves are essentially free mulch for a garden, with a whole host of benefits, including weed suppression, fertilization and habitat for wildlife. 

In fact, if you're sick of maintaining a lawn, you can consider converting a portion of it into a native garden area — meaning less mowing, less water usage and less leaf collection in the years ahead.

Leslie Pilgrim, the founder of Neighborhood Greening in Minneapolis, has some tips for fall planting in the Midwest, including what to do with leaves.

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