Residents face this issue when faced with lawn clippings, pine straw, and other small yard debris throughout the year. Once the raking and leaf blowing is done, where should it all go? If your answer is to blow it or pile it in the street… guess again!

Leaf litter poses a serious hazard when it accumulates in storm drains and gutters. The storm drains are designed to allow water to quickly drain away after a heavy rainfall, but if they become blocked or clogged, serious flooding issues can occur.

Leaf litter decomposes more quickly in urban gutters than it does in natural forest settings. The rapid rate of decomposition may release more nutrients into the surface water after rainfall events. It is important to prevent this, because the introduction of nutrients into the surface water is a leading cause of unsightly algae growth. While nutrients are useful in helping plants grow in your garden or lawn, too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing. Rapid influxes of nutrients from decomposing leaves and grass cause algae to proliferate in surface waters, making the water unfit for swimming and killing native plants and fish.

Because this is such an important issue to citizens, the City of Tallahassee even has an ordinance pertaining to it, prohibiting the introduction of yard debris into our streets and drainage system.

We need to keep storm drains and gutters clear, and proper disposal of yard debris is something each of us can do. How do we do it? There are a few ways:

  1. Utilize the leaf litter and grass clippings as mulch for flower beds, vegetable gardens, or along fencelines to prevent weed growth. Mulch has numerous benefits to the soil; it helps retain moisture, insulates and protects from temperature fluctuation, and improves soil health through the addition of nutrients via decomposition.  Mulch can also help protect the quality of local lakes and streams by reducing soil erosion and stormwater runoff.
  2. Add the material to your compost; leaves are rich in minerals and nutrients. Grinding them with the lawnmower before adding to the compost will ensure that they release their nutrients and accelerate the composting process. Leaves add carbon and fibrous material to your compost pile, so it’s best to balance their contribution with a nitrogen source. Fortunately, grass clippings are high in nitrogen, so yard debris becomes a winning combination in your compost pile!
  3. Allow grass clippings or ground leaves to dry and decompose in place. They won't smother your grass; in fact they will add nutrients and help retain soil moisture. 
  4. Collect and store the leaves and grass clippings in bags to be collected on yard waste pickup day. Proper disposal will keep our waters clear and help prevent flooding.

What is good for our yards may be bad for our lakes. Lawn fertilizer can become pollution that disturbs the natural balance in a lake or stream. Fertilizing the lake leads to an ugly explosion of plant and algae growth (blooms), often followed by a massive die-off with the dead vegetation decomposing in the water. This high rate of decomposition uses up the oxygen supply in the water, depriving fish of the oxygen they need to breathe and causing fish kills. Certain algal blooms can even be directly harmful to us if we swim in them. So, fertilizers in our lakes and streams create a big, messy problem. By taking a few smart steps in yard fertilizing practices, this pointless personal pollution can be prevented.

Is it required?

This may be the most commonly asked question about fertilizer. The short answer is no, your turf grass does not necessarily need to be fertilized. This depends on a multitude of different factors, such as grass variety, soil type, and climate. Healthy lawns play an important role in preventing soil erosion and reducing polluted runoff. Having a thriving lawn can be inviting for kids wanting a place to run and play, or neighbors who want to gather outdoors. It just makes sense to maintain your yard and keep it healthy.

Side note: It’s totally okay not to have a grassy lawn! Replacing some of your turf grass with flower beds, mulched areas, or rain gardens can bring beauty and biodiversity to your yard.

But long story short, in most cases there is no need to fertilize your yard. But, if your lawn looks unhealthy, a call to the local IFAS extension office can help diagnose the problem. You may need a soil test to see if there is a nutrient deficiency, or maybe there’s a pest issue that requires treatment.

How do you fertilize properly?

If you have poor soil, your grass may require the addition of nutrients in the form of fertilizer. Choose the fertilizer labeled for urban turf, not flower or vegetable beds. Look for slow-release nitrogen, and no phosphorous.

Use a fertilizer spreader with a deflector shield to achieve the most even application and to avoid fertilizing unnecessary areas. Fertilizer bags are labeled with the percentage of nitrogen to help you apply the correct rates, so always read the label and follow the directions.

More is not better; in fact, excess fertilization can contribute to increased disease or insect problems and the potential for increased nutrient leaching or runoff.

When do you apply fertilizer?

It is important to remember to fertilize only during the growing season. Grasses do not have the ability to uptake nutrients when they are dormant. Here in north Florida, turf grass is growing between April and October. Fertilizing outside of this range of time can lead to excess nutrient runoff.

While April through September is the prime growing season for grass, it also encompasses the rainiest of seasons: hurricane season. Never apply fertilizer before a heavy rain is expected. If a hurricane is approaching, it goes without saying that fertilizing the lawn can wait! Once you have applied fertilizer on a clear day, run the sprinkler or the hose for a short time to water-in the granules to help them absorb into the soil.

Fertilizer quick tips:

  • Only fertilize if needed.
  • Follow label directions, less is best.
  • Use slow-release nitrogen and zero phosphorous fertilizer.
  • Only apply during the growing season (April – September)
  • Don’t apply is rain is expected.
  • Don’t apply near hard surfaces.
  • Don’t apply near waterbodies.

Other tips for a healthy lawn:

  • Mow high – never remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade at any one time.
  • Leave grass clippings – they return nutrients to the soil as they decompose. Keeping them off the streets and sidewalks prevents surface water pollution.
  • Leave new sod alone – do not apply fertilizer to freshly laid sod, as the root system has not yet developed. Wait at least 30 to 60 days after planting.
  • Ask for help – if you have persistent lawn or garden issues, consult with the UF/IFAS Extension office.

View the City of Tallahassee Fertilizer Ordinance

Soil erosion occurs when water washes topsoil from your property. When this happens, you lose the nutrient-rich resource that your plants need to grow, and once topsoil washes away, it is very difficult to replace. Eroded soil clouds the water in lakes and streams and contributes excess nutrients that disrupt the balance of life.

Erosion depends on two factors: how much and how heavily rain comes down and how much cover is there to protect the ground. Trees and other plants keep heavy rains from knocking the soil loose and washing it away. Roots hold the soil in place so your yard stays at home.

To prevent erosion in your yard:

  • Plant a rain garden to slow the flow!
  • Don't leave exposed soil unprotected — use mulch to cover bare areas and try to establish plants or groundcover there. 
  • Direct storm runoff away from unprotected bare soil.
  • Consider terraces to slow the flow on steeply sloped places.
  • Schedule construction or major landscaping for the dry season.