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Trillions of tree leaves are making their final descent.

Your job: deciding what to do with them.

You could cast their fate to the wind. But then the leaves would wind up blocking water and sunlight the grass needs while it’s still growing.

So every fall, turf tenders morph into leaf managers, a fact Gary Nelles knows well.

“I don’t really look forward to it, but I don’t mind doing the leaves.

“It’s a beautiful time of the year,” says Nelles, 61, of Fenton, Mich.

He starts out with a mulching mower until the leaf layer gets too thick.

Then he uses a power blower to shoot the leaves into a wooded area, where they decompose.

Dale White, manager of Uncle Luke’s Feed Store in Troy, Mich., rakes leaves on his lawn into giant rows. Then he mows them and adds the chopped bits to his garden.

The notion that every last leaf must be removed from the property is relatively new, according to Ted Steinberg, author of “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn” (W.W. Norton, $24.95).

With the rise of the leaf blower in the 1970s and ’80s, Steinberg says, leaf and debris removal became routine.

According to a Toro survey, 77 percent of homeowners say picking up fall leaves is their biggest problem task.

Whether you consider fall leaves a problem or a free garden resource, it’s that time of year when your business is picking up.

Leaf management 101

1. Mow and mulch

Once leaves are mowed into tiny bits, it doesn’t hurt the grass to leave them right where they fall on the lawn.

In fact, mowed leaves provide turf with nutrients and organic matter, according to research at Michigan State University. Use a mulching blade on the mower for best results.

How often you’ll need to mow the leaves depends on the size and number of trees.

“People might have to go over it twice at the highest (mower) height to get through, they go back again to break them up even more,” says Kevin Frank, a turf expert at MSU.

The mower-chopped leaves also could be used as a soil amendment and mulch in planted areas.

Pro: Easy because you have to mow anyway. Helps the grass.

Con: May require mulching mower. Difficult or impossible when there are lots of leaves

2. Rake

As with mousetraps, people are always seeking a better leaf rake. A new one this year is the Slapshot lawn rake ($14.95 plus shipping and handling; www.slapshotlawntools.com). It’s supposed to cover more ground faster with less stress on the raker’s body as well as clog less often.

While rake choice is personal, it makes sense to opt for an ergonomic model with a curved handle, says Dale Brown, an occupational therapist at Beaumont Health Center in Royal Oak, Mich. The curve makes it easier on the raker’s back than a straight rake.

Brown recommends stretching to warm up before raking, not doing too much at one time, and switching from left to right sides frequently.

Take shorter strokes so you don’t have to reach out as far. Rake when leaves are dry so they’re lighter. Wear supportive shoes. A larger grip is easier to handle for those with arthritis.

“The biggest problem we’ve seen is people trying to do too much too soon,” Brown says. “They’ll jump right in and do the entire yard and the next morning they’re sore.” Those with any health problems should check with their doctors before raking season begins.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons also suggests wearing gloves to prevent blisters, bending at the knees rather than at the waist, avoiding twisting while raking, and taking extra care when leaves are wet and slippery.

Americans suffered almost 28,000 raking-related injuries last year that required emergency-room treatment, the group says.

Pro: Raking is quiet and good exercise.

Con: Raking is good exercise.

3. Non-rakes

Leaf sweepers are like push mowers that pick up and collect the leaves. Plow and Hearth ( www.plowhearth.com) has one for $149.95 (Item 50241).

Leaf scoops strap on a person’s hands, turning them into giant, grabby paws. Gardeners’ Supply has a 15-inch-wide model for $11.95 ( www.gardeners.com; I tem 35-975).

For those really into debris management, there’s a product called Toro Leaf Lock ($9.49; www.amazon.com) that can be mixed with water and sprayed over a pile of leaves. The manufacturer says it forms a shell so leaves don’t blow around. According to Toro, Leaf Lock is made from a corn byproduct.

Pro: Work reducers.

Con: More expensive than raking alone, although the outlay could be spread over several seasons.

4. Power tools

Blowers can be gas or electric and carried, worn as a backpack or pushed. Check out the noise level as well as the price and power and wear eye and ear protection.

An article in Horticulture magazine’s October-November 2006 issue quotes blower prices as starting at $60 for hand-helds, $300 to $600 for backpacks and more than $1,000 for big walk-behind blowers. (To compare models, go to www.hortmag.com/ope and click “leaf blowers.”)

For people with lots of leaves, lots of property and a love of power toys, fall can be playtime. For instance, DR Power Equipment ( www.drpower.com) has a new 6-horsepower walk-behind push leaf vacuum ($1,259). Other leaf catchers may be attached to riding mowers.

Pro: They do the job efficiently.

Con: Often pricey and noisy.

5. Make leaf mold or compost

Corral a pile of leaves. Get them wet. Wait for them to break down.

Eventually, they’ll become leaf mold, the top layer of the forest floor and a fine soil conditioner.

It’s easy, though time-consuming. Unless you chop or shred the leaves first, it can take a year or two for the leaves to break down into leaf mold.

Still, it’s one low-tech way to reuse leaves and get a free product to improve soil texture and its ability to hold water. Leaves on the bottom, next to the soil, will turn into leaf mold first.

Whole or shredded leaves also may be added to a compost pile. Alternate with untreated grass clippings and healthy garden debris. Toss in a few shovels of garden soil and keep the pile as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Compost is also known as gardener’s gold because it improves soil texture and nourishes plants.

Pro: Free soil conditioner. You get to feel virtuous.

Con: Compost happens, but not overnight.

6. Hire someone

It could be the neighborhood teenager or a professional lawn crew, so the price range is substantial. Get several quotes.

Maybe you want the leaves mowed into the lawn every week. Maybe your choice is an end-of-season cleanup that includes blowing leaves from planted areas as well as from the lawn.

Ask what will happen to the leaves once they’re collected. Some municipalities ticket lawn services that dump leaves curbside even if they encourage residents to do the same.

Pro: The leaves disappear.

Con: Dollars vanish, too.

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