ST. JOSEPH COUNTY -

As homeowners in St. Joseph County wait for their leaves to get picked up, some may be tempted to round them up and set a match to them.

But fire officials want to warn people that those living in the unincorporated parts of St. Joseph County are still under a burn ban until May 12-19, and leaf fires are illegal before and after that week.

If you're tired of seeing bags and bags of leaves sitting on your curb, there are alternatives to leaf burning that are not only good for your lawn and garden, but safe for you and your family.

Composting is one option for those who don't know what to do with their extra leaves, said Mitch Yaciw, manager of the Unity Gardens in South Bend.

"Basically, you start by putting in leaves, and then you have to add other green materials in there, like grass clippings or food waste," Yaciw explained.

Composting is a little complicated to get started, but it does wonders for your flowers and plants.

"You can actually use it to enhance the soil in your garden, it'll actually hold water better," he said.

But if you're looking for something a little easier, consider mulching your leaves.

It's as simple as mowing over them and letting them break down on your lawn. Or, you can rake up your leaf piles, and set them down in your garden beds and around shrubs and trees.

Composting and mulching can be a challenge for those with smaller yards and lots of trees, admitted Yaciw, but it can help get rid of at least a few of those leaf bags. Homeowners can always give leaves away to gardeners who need them, he added.

All of these options get the thumbs-up from Clay Township fire marshal Dave Cherrone, who said he's been dealing with dangerous leaf fires every day since the weather warmed up.

He doesn't condone burning the leaves, even during the amnesty week, as there's always a chance the fire will spread, hurting something or someone.

The smoke itself can also be harmful, he said.

"People who have chronic respiratory problems, that of course gets aggravated by the smoke," Cherrone said.

Clay Township's Fire Department has already responded to more than 50 leaf fires since the beginning of April.

All of those fires were illegal, Cherrone said.

"If you have a way of doing away with those leaves in a simpler fashion other than burning, we love that," he said.

And your yard will love it, too.

"It's Mother Nature's way of feeding itself," Yaciw added.

Those who live within city limits cannot burn leaves at all without a permit from their fire and health departments.

Anyone who's caught burning leaves illegally runs the risk of getting fined up to $1000.