It’s the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday as they now call it. My shopping today will be all for my pile, and I don’t have far to go to collect it.
My pile is freshly stuffed with a new supply of seaweed gleaned from the local beach after a pre-feast walk. The compost bucket is full of kitchen trimmings and plate scrapings. I heap the leftovers of the leftovers and turn to top off my pile with a fresh and final gathering of leaves.
On the north side of my corner lot, two 30-foot strips of forsythia bushes line the road, flanking either side of the driveway.
I prize the forsythia hedge for shocking my yard back to life each spring with its vibrant display of small yellow flowers that spark upward along spiky stems, exploding like fireworks above the more dainty crocuses and daffodils poking up from the wood chips underneath.
Come summer their profuse cloak of growth creates a privacy screen for my house and yard, impenetrable to even the dog chasing after a muffed tennis ball. The deer don’t touch their small oblate leaves, and their pick-up-sticks matrix of stems give perch and refuge to the flocks of dusky sparrows and colorful chorus of finches and wrens and cardinals that flit back and forth from the bird feeder I’ve hung from the lowest branch of a nearby maple.
I keep these tangly hedgerows trimmed about head high, just wide enough to reach over the middle with my clippers from either side.
Not only does the forsythia usher in the growing season with its burst of spring yellow and prolific growth, it’s about the last deciduous planting to give up its leaves for the year.
Being set along the road and within the spread of a sycamore, four maples and a pine — and a gust away from a cluster of ancient oaks nearby — the forsythia also serve as catch-all windrows that snag all the leaves blown their way. By the end of each fall, the spiky shoots that form the base of each forsythia bush have trapped a deep layer of rotting leaves. Papery sycamore and waxy oak leaves are suspended mid-air like so many plastic bags stuck in a tree along a highway.
Extracting this leafy mess is a chore, and some years I don’t even bother. I either leave the detritus to settle into itself or cover up the base with shovelfuls of wood chips tossed into the hedgerows. But having assiduously raked or mulched up the rest of my leaves this fall, and having some newfound capacity in my pile, I decide to plunge in.
First, I tease out the top layer of leaves with a rake, the tines bucking and bowing with each thrust and parry into the tangle of limbs.
With the easy pickings gleaned with the rake, it gets down to hand-to-hand combat. I’ve tried blowing out the leaves by poking at the leaves still locked in the base of each arching bush with the nuzzle of my leaf blower. But it’s a noisy job and success can only be achieved by a scorched-earth sort of blowing to blast out the holdouts.
I’ve found it’s just as well to kneel down to grab the wet leaf mold and pluck the stray leaves by the handful. I wear a heavy work jacket, but have no defense against the springy broken branches that whip back up into my face, aside from my eye glasses.
That lack of protection has hurt me before. As a high schooler, I made pocket money by mowing and tending the lawns of a half-dozen neighbors. One yard I cared for had a similar hedgerow, and one fall I was raking leaves from out of the bushes when the tip of a branch poked me in the eye. It hurt, then kept hurting. After a few teary days, my mom took me to the doctor. He took x-rays and showed me the film, which revealed that a tip of a branch had penetrated my eye socket, broken off and was lodged behind my eyeball. I still remember the sight of the x-ray, showing the ghostly image of a perfectly formed bud tucked behind the orb of my eyeball.
I also still remember quite vividly the experience of the surgical procedure to remove that bud from behind my eyeball; the pinchers forcing my eyelids apart; the slender needle of anesthetic poking into my eyeball, bending; the brusque bending of the eyeball itself as the surgeon got behind it to remove the fat splinter. And I remember going to my high school football coach, wearing an eye patch, to say that I would have to miss the Friday night game. I was a receiver, and he asked me if I could still play if I could just line up “on my good side.” He was a very winning coach, but that game I sat on the sidelines.
Forsythia doesn’t give up its leaf litter without a fight. But it’s worth it for my pile.
The two rows of forsythia produce four long rows of heavy, wet leaves, thick with rich crumbly leaf mold and studded with broken branches flicked up by the aggressive raking.
This collection is too heavy and too “sticky” to move with my old bedsheet, so I use a small plastic tarp, about 3 ft. wide, 5 ft. long and rimmed by a clothesline laced through grommets along its edges.
I rake the dense leaf and shrub litter onto the tarp and drag it over to the pile, six loads in all. It’s good stuff — a heavy topper of veteran brown stuff that, once moved, will now resolutely refuse to be scattered about again by any winter wind storm. It will easily absorb the rain and blankets of snow that will come. This thick layer of leaf mold and half-rotted wood chips gives my pile reassuring bulk, a fine addition to the freshly deposited Thanksgiving scraps, seaweed and the last big harvest of leaves.