Tuesday, November 27, 2012

riveting post about the conundrum of fall leaves

kids in front yard - 2001

On Sunday afternoon, I mowed all the leaves in my yard.

Since then, I've been mulling and mulling over how to talk about that.  How do you make a pile of dried and shriveled leaves sound sexy and interesting?

You don't man.  After two days of trying, I've come up empty handed.  But I refuse to give up (lucky you) because the bulk of them presents such a conundrum. 

Every year when the leaves fall, thousands of people bag this perfectly good organic material in plastic and send it to the dump.  Come spring, many of these same people drive to the store to purchase perfectly good organic material, also in plastic, and bring it home to use as mulch in their yards. 

This drives me crazy!

The problem is so obvious (too much energy to get rid of something we shouldn't be getting rid of to begin with), but the solution: not so obvious.

If you must remove your leaves, there are lots of ways to improve this process: use paper or compostable plastic bags for your leaves; find a community garden that will take them for mulch, participate in a county mulching program.  And for god's sake: use a calorie-powered rake, not a fossil-fuel burning leaf blower!

By chance, we don't have to use bags because our county picks up our leaves.  They use a truck that resembles a Snuffaluffagus on wheels: big, brown, noisy, and sporting a vacuum hose big enough to suck a person up into it  (but stay out of there because it mulches too).   The county uses the mulch in public spaces.  They make any left over available to residents at no charge.  Not a bad deal at all. 

Except those darn trucks.  They rumble and lumber along, guzzling gas to power the truck engine, the vacuum, and the mulcher for hours and hours without end.  They come around three times per year. 

Is this necessary? Why do the leaves ever have to leave the yard--especially when we need them for mulch in the spring?

I can only speak for us.  If we didn't rake, we'd live in a mud pit.  Also, the mold that would grow in all those leaves would make us sick.  With 1/2 acre and a lot of mature trees, I acknowledge: the leaves have to go somewhere.

If you only have a few leaves, you can stick them in a corner, or in your garden.  If we raked ours into one pile, however, it would threaten to bury our house. We'd quickly run out of room as the leaves wouldn't have time to decompose from year to year. 

If we tried to spread them out in our gardens, or even around the perimeter of the yard,  we'd still have such big piles the leaves would blow right back out.  Again, enter mud and mold.  Less significantly, gobs of loose leaves in the yard are like mice, they find their way into your house and multiply.  And even if we could keep them out of the house and in the garden, they'd make a layer so thick and impenetrable they'd kill all the plants trying to grow there.

Every year, as we rake our leaves to the street, I fret about this.  While I enjoy the fresh air and the time spent working with family, I inwardly mutter and connive: why didn't I invest in a chipper/shredder?  What's so bad about mud? How much gas does that Snuffaluffagus use?  I could have used these leaves in my compost heap this winter!

And here's where it finally gets sexy (because nothing is sexy like a compost heap).  Remember my smelly compost problem?  It smells because I never add enough brown stuff like dead leaves and dried grass clippings.  I'm always scavenging around the yard for weeds, or a few stray leaves, or a clump of collected grass clippings.

Then this summer, I discovered something very interesting.  Our mulching lawn mower has a bag.  Yes it does.  I actually started asking about this bag a few years ago.  It's amazing - knowledge is power, y'know? 

Yes.  I am the foolish woman in this scenario: ignorant of the workings of lawn equipment and it's paraphernalia.  Like a pre-feminist woman, left woefully uneducated about sex and birth control, I had some idea that there was a contraption to catch this fertile substance as the mower ejected it, but I didn't know enough to avoid being put off by the man who deliberately withheld information from me.  I asked and asked, but never really got anywhere.

I heard all manner of evasive replies: our mulching mower didn't come with a bag--the clippings are supposed to fertilize where they fall.  There might be a bag but I don't know where it is.  I think I know where it is, but I don't think it works.  I found it but I didn't have time to put it on (we've all heard that before). 

Until one day this past July, it finally happened.  Steve used the bag. 

I was so happy!

All summer I collected grass clippings to mulch my herb garden and to layer in my compost.  Then, with Steve out of town several weeks ago, I mowed the first round of leaves.  He didn't want me to do it (men don't like you to change their lawn routines).  It worked so beautifully, however, that even he had to agree. 

As I mowed for the third and final time on Sunday, Steve emptied the composter for winter.  He saw first hand the benefit of including clippings.  My intermittent supply of them had created compost that resembled a layered and stinky cheese - with one layer mild and pleasant and the next rotten and smelly.  During one particularly bad layer, he stood up and said, "I think I'm going to vomit" (In defense of my heap, I think he had a little bit of a hangover).  I dumped my leaves in the pile and smiled. 

Now, instead of a mountain of leaves to be hauled away by the county, I have two piles of chopped leaves that together, could tower over me (instead of the house).  And next time we empty the compost, Steve will have no need to feel like vomiting--hangover or not.


But even though I've reached a horrifying 1,000 words, that is not the end of this not-so-sexy post, because, as you probably already know, I have created a new problem:

The lawn mower.

Ugh.  I know the lawn mower is SO BAD.

I will save just how bad for another post, except to say the EPA claims that 5% of U.S. green house gas emissions comes from lawn mowers.  So, if everyone mowed their leaves, would this prove worse than all those plastic yard bags, all those plastic mulch bags, and all the production, shipping, storage, and transportation involved in our current system?

I really have no idea.  I'm trying to go with the whole philosophy of process and lessatarianism.  My new system is certainly less than perfect, but I hope it is also less than the bad it used to be, and I know it is way better for my compost and garden.

So never fear.  My sexy lawn saga will continue as I try to figure this out.  We need a new mower anyway, so maybe next spring we'll end up with something really earth friendly like this:

I'm just kidding.  That's too old and rusty.  Let's get modern.   Like this!

now we're talking!!

Then I can jazz up my summer lawn care post with the tragic story of my divorce.

Stay tuned!


  1. hahahahaha. the words sexy and vomit and compost in the same post works, somehow, very well! love the pic at the end.

    1. yes. there's nothing like compost to bring sexy and vomit together! :)

  2. Oh yes... I look forward to the details of you divorce. LOL...

  3. Wow, that was actually a very educational post! I think you could make any topic interesting, but seriously, who knew there was so much to consider when dealing with fallen leaves? ...I can't stand leaf blowers either, what a waste and a nuisance. But I hadn't really thought about the downside of leaving the leaves, so to speak. I don't have a yard to deal with, but maybe someday. I look forward to following your lawn saga and learning as you do!

    1. thanks jennifer. you are always so nice. we were very clueless about leaves when we moved in here so many years ago. we had no idea how much TIME they would take! the best way to manage them continues to evolve...