It seems as if raking leaves, bagging them and hauling them to the curb is what responsible homeowners do in the fall. But if you're trying to grow greener, bagging and tossing leaves is not the best option. Trucking bags of leaves gobbles up fuel and wastes a wonderful resource: the leaves themselves.

Fallen leaves can improve your grass and your garden soil, protect your plants and help cut down on weeds. Here's how:

Chop leaves on your lawn. Unless you have lots of leaves, you may not have to rake.

Research from Michigan State University has shown that when left on the lawn, chopped leaves (specifically oak and maple leaves) can add nutrients, help grass green up in spring and even cut down on the dandelions in typical bluegrass lawns. The leaves need to be chopped into small enough pieces so they filter down into the grass, rather than just sit on top.

If you have a thicker layer of leaves, try mowing in a circle, so that the leaves have a chance to be chopped several times. Then, rake up any leaves that are still too large to filter down.

Put them to use now. A thick layer of leaves (preferably chopped) makes a great winter mulch for trees, shrubs and tender perennials. So rake and bag leaves now to use as mulch when the ground begins to freeze.

You also can till leaves into your vegetable garden now, to add organic material to next summer's garden soil.

Add to the compost. You can add leaves to your compost pile, but too many leaves can quickly overwhelm a small composter. Chopped leaves decompose faster and are easier to turn in a compost pile. The fastest way to change leaves into compost is to use them as one component in a compost bin, along with soil, grass clippings and other materials. For more information on how to make a compost pile, see

Start a leaf pile. If you have several trees, which translates into lots of leaves, you may not have enough room in your compost pile. You can make a separate pile for leaves. Next summer, you can use these partially decomposed leaves as a mulch between the rows of your vegetable or perennial garden.

Bag 'em up. Many municipalities haul leaves to a compost site -- or invite you to do the same. If you can't make use of all the leaves that your trees produce, put them in paper lawn bags for pickup. Never put leaves or any other garden waste in a regular garbage can.

Mary Hockenberry Meyer is a professor and extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota.