Children ask smart questions

Published 12:33 am Sunday, November 4, 2007

This week I will answer a question that was asked by an elite group of Natchez citizens — elementary school students. The answer can be quite simple but explaining it is quite a challenge. Why is it that kids always ask questions that make you look dumb?

First, I must say these columns are research based recommendations. If your spouse is overworking based on my suggestions, I apologize. But I think the work will pay off. I will try to give you some relief in next week’s article and hopefully get the overbearing, lawn loving, gardening fanatic, spouses to slow down.

Q. How and why do leaves change different colors?

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As you have obviously noticed by now, the landscape around Natchez and the surrounding area is changing. This change is never more evident than the color of trees turning from green to red, orange, yellow, brown, and other tones.

Despite some popular thoughts, freezes do not cause leaves to change colors, many leaves have already begun changing shades and there has been no remote sign of freeze. Leaves changing color is the works of a chemical process within the tree in preparation for winter. Trees rely heavily on leaves during spring and summer months to help provide food for growing. Each leaf has millions of microscopic cells that produce small green bodies called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is what gives trees the green color during these growing months. The tree works as a factory using all its parts, including roots for water, to help make all this happen.

Around this time of the year each year as the weather, sunlight, and environment begins changing, the tree begins to slow down, and the work of the leaves begin to end. Therefore the chlorophyll remaining in the leaf is broken down and stored in the tree for use in the spring.

What remains is a leaf that is losing its green color. The leaf body now consists of cell cavities that have a watery substance where you can see oil globules and small yellow refractive bodies, thus giving a yellow appearance. Sometimes there is more sugar in the leaf than can readily be transferred back to the tree. Then the chemical combination with other substances produces many color shades, from the brilliant red of the dogwood to the colorful red-browns of the oaks.

In the cone-bearing trees that do not lose their foliage in the fall, the green coloring takes on a slightly brownish tinge that gives way to a lighter color in the spring.

All these colors end up falling to the ground and becoming yard decorations and eventually yard work. As a child my brothers and I used to rake them into massive piles which were good for burning or modified redneck trampolines.

Unfortunately with today’s regulations and insurance policies I do not recommend you burn leaves; however for kids making large piles to jump in or ride bikes through can be a blast. Leaves are also great for compost piles when combined with high nitrogen materials, like grass clippings, or when used as mulch.

If you plan on using them as organic matter in a garden, tilling or plowing them into the soil will greatly speed up the decaying process.

David Carter is the director of the Adams County Extension Service. He can be reached at 601-445-8201.