Here’s why those leaves are still on the trees

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Ray Rapisarda cleans the leaves in front of his Schenectady home in October 2015

Despite some leaves taking longer than usual to hit the ground, leaf pickup programs by local municipalities are winding down for the season.

The Capital Region is approaching the end of what was a lackluster fall foliage season, compared with last year. According to Fred Breglia, certified arborist and executive director of Landis Arboretum in Schoharie and Montgomery counties, the duller colors, along with some leaves taking longer to fall, is a result of a wetter-than-usual spring.

“It’s been a weird year all around with plants,” Breglia said.

He explained how trees reacted positively to getting more water in the spring by putting out more leaves than usual. That means there were just more leaves to fall than in past foliage seasons.

But some trees, especially maples, have had a particularly bad year, he said. Sugar and red maples saw their leaves fall earlier than normal due to “tar spot disease,” which doesn’t hurt trees in the long run but which knocks leaves off trees earlier in the season.

By comparison, many Norway maples — they usually keep their leaves later than other species — still have leaves left on them, Breglia said. Norway maple leaves also usually turn yellow before dropping, but that won’t be the case this year, he said.

Due to the increased moisture in the spring and summer and the lack of cold weather in the fall, Norway maples continued to produce chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color, deep into the fall. Usually, when cold weather arrives, the chlorophyll production slows and stops, causing the leaves to change color and eventually fall.

This year, Breglia said, with the quick jump from warm throughout the fall to cold weather in late November, the leaves essentially went into shock and froze on the tree. The leaves will eventually rot on their branches and fall when wind or more severe weather knocks them down.

“The leaves literally get kind of freeze- dried on the tree,” he said. “They just went into shock. … They won’t turn yellow this year.”

Breglia estimated even the most stubborn leaves will be down by the first real snowfall of the winter. He noted that leaves should return to normal fall colors next year, unless there’s another exceptionally warm, moist spring.

Meanwhile, the unusual fall has hampered some cleanup efforts.

“It’s an ongoing battle every year,” said Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, commissioner of public works for Saratoga Springs, referring to the unpredictable foliage season. “We knew it was going to be an issue.”

Since the department knew some leaves might not fall until late in the season, Scirocco said that the DPW had crews continue collecting leaves until just before the Thanksgiving holiday.

And even though there were still crews of three or four workers out on Tuesday afternoon, Scirocco said people had mostly finished their raking, and that the cleanup effort was coming to an end, to resume after the winter.

“It’s been difficult, but we’re working through it,” he said. “We’re pretty much covering it.”

Catherine Martini, who works with the master gardener program at Cornell Cooperative Extension, confirmed that some trees, like maples and oaks, simply hold onto their leaves longer when there isn’t enough cold weather to make the colors turn.

She noted that those who are still cleaning up leaves can either continue to rake them up or mulch them with lawnmowers. But once the ground freezes, people shouldn’t drive a lawn tractor over it, because it might cause lasting damage, she said.

She also suggested any trees that have weak branches laden with heavy, dead leaves should be given some attention, and homeowners should take steps to make sure that they don’t fall on houses when the snow comes.

Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett noted that County Waste, the garbage and recycling service based in town, has been and will continue to provide free pickup to all residents through the first week of December, due to the lack of snow.

“It’s always weather-dependent,” he said of the pickup program. “If we get snow in November or [even] October, that’ll end the program.”

Barrett confirmed that town residents are finishing their leaf cleanup before the snow comes, as well.

“With each week, the bags are less and less full,” he said.

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