My Pile: All In

The final page of the calendar for a full year in the life of my backyard compost heap has turned. Today is the first Saturday of November, a crisp, frosty morning that promises to warm into a sunny autumn afternoon. Prime time for my pile.

There is no true end to my pile, for it exists on a continuum, a pendulum set to deep time that sways with the seasons from growth and life to rot and decay and from there back to rebirth. But if there is a day that defines my pile and all its promise, this is it.

The neighborhood is already abuzz with activity as I head outdoors to scope out the yard and plot the day’s pleasant duties.

Through a week of seesaw temperatures, a bit of rain and windy bluster, the trees in my yard have steadily given up the lion’s share of their leaves. I look up to see the bare limbs of the maples silhouetted against the brightening blue skies. The big sycamore in the corner of the front yard, recently scalped by the tree trimmers, has also dropped most of its leaves, some the size of dinner plates, still green. Left dangling from the remaining limbs are countless round sycamore balls, which will ripen and flutter their fluffy spawn down upon the cold ground of winter. The young hickory tree in the other corner of the backyard is now surrounded by a footing of amber leaves. Still attached to their petioles, they are much too heavy to do anything but drop straight to the ground. I surrender, the trees are saying.

Some leaves remain aloft – the crimson Japanese maples, the willow, privet bushes and forsythia and more low shrubs and bushes cling to their colorful fashions. Just beyond my property, the ridge line of oaks are still thick with multi-hued foliage, providing a scenic backdrop and the prospect of further weekend cleanups on the horizon.

I reckon I’m halfway done raising my pile off the ground. The first quarter I built up with generous doses of rich green organics, from slender grass clippings and tossled mops of seaweed, to tangly tomato vines and spent flower stalks. I’ve heaped upon this rich base two garbage cans of compostings, twin barrels a biological heat, leavened by fluffy layers of salt marsh hay. And don’t forget the bin of llama beans, which scattered like so many multi-vitamins of pelletized manure into the maw that is my growing pile.

Nov 8 2015 041

Halfway through fall leaf cleanup is a good time to dagwood into my pile a layer of salt marsh grass hay, shredded paper and kitchen scraps.

Last weekend’s first fall cleanup, plus a dosing of shredded paper, kitchen scraps and more, lifted my pile by half again. Today’s cleanup will, if seasons’ past give reason, make my pile about three-quarters full.

The leaf season here along the mild but breezy southern Connecticut shore usually lasts until the first snows begin to fall, if not for a white Christmas, then soon into the new year. I’ll keep after the straggler leaves as long as the weather permits, ladling the latecomers to the party that is my pile with a steady supply of damp, dark, granular coffee grounds from the local Java shop.

Sometimes the fall leaf season ends with a gentle, graceful whimper, like today. Sometimes it ends with a walloping bang.

At this moment in 2012, my neighbors and I were coping with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which hurtled up the Atlantic Seaboard on Oct. 29 and slammed ashore just up the Connecticut coast.

Sandy’s rain-lashed winds toppled trees across power lines and houses, whipped leaves and branches far and wide, and left the neighborhood without power for the better part of a week. The year before, on the same day, a “freak” snowstorm dumped seven inches of wet, fat snowflakes, burdening the trees still cloaked in leaves with unsustainable weight. The snow melted within the day, but my neighbors and I spent the next week dragging snapped limbs off to the town refuse dump.

An unexpected snow storm snaps leaf-laden branches and surprises all, even the dog.

An unexpected snow storm snaps leaf-laden branches and surprises all, even the dog.

In crisis, neighbors pull together, lending portable pumps to drain flooded basements, generators to keep freezers from becoming a total loss, and chain saws to clear roads and driveways. Picking up leaves were the last thing on our minds.

Not today. The whine of leaf blowers, from backpack commercial crews and homeowners yielding small electric models, echoes across the neighborhood. The pros suck up leaves through great big vacuum hoses; the homeowners stuff leaves into brown paper bags. The first costs too much money and the second seems like too much bother, packaging leaves in paper cylinders to be stacked by the curb and collected in time by municipal crews to be hauled off by the countless thousand to a distant landfill.

I keep all my leaves on property and plan for today a repeat of last weekend’s preliminary cleanup. First I prep my pile by tossing atop it a week’s worth of kitchen scraps. A supply of shredded paper follows, topped by two buckets of salt grass hay. It’s become my habit to gather both, the first from the office each week, and the second collected on a detour to the beach after dropping my son off at school.

It’s my routine, and both my pile and I are the better for it.

Next comes another composting habit that I’ve come to enjoy: First I blow the leaves from the garden beds onto the lawn, then I mow and mulch. I empty the grass catcher after the mower belches through the heaviest patches of leaves, but as I go allow about half of the mulchings to be disgorged back onto the turf from the stuffed-up mower.

My neighbor Craig across the street is at it as well, and I wave to him as I slowly mulch and mow across the grass. In years past, he’s raked all his leaves into a pile and then stuffed them into dozens of tall brown bags. Sometimes, I’ve heaped a big brown paper bag or two of his leaves into my wheelbarrow and dumped them onto my pile, returning the empty bags for him to refill.

This year he’s taken another tack. He’s blown the leaves from his thickly shaded yard over the rock wall that fronts the street and is using his mower to grind up the leaves straight off the asphalt. The result is a windrow of pulverized leaves, minced more finely, and more quickly, than my practice of mulching leaves by mowing only on the lawn. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that the mower would work more efficiently when walked through a pile of leaves splayed out on more unforgiving pavement.

I walk over to admire his handiwork, an innovation, Craig explains, that was borne of necessity. He lifts his work shirt to show me the back brace he’s wearing and explains that this year there’s no way he’s doing all the bending and lifting involved in stuffing dozens of paper bags full of leaves. He makes me a proposition: If I help him drag his road-kill leaves over to my pile, he’ll use his mower to help me mulch the rest of my leaves.

It’s an offer I can’t refuse. I scan the side of his street to consider the 50-foot-long windrow of minced leaves and know that these easy pickings will be a bounty for my pile.

My neighbor Craig, mulching his crop of leaves into a thick windrow of mulched leaf litter.

My neighbor Craig, mulching his crop of leaves into a thick windrow of pulvierized leaf litter.

I leave my mower in place in the front yard and grab a large plastic tarp that covers my wood pile and set it in the street along his property. Together, we rake and sweep and blow a foot-thick layer of fricassed leaves, mostly oak, onto the tarp.

We gather up the four corners to drag the tarp across the street toward my backyard and pile and within steps realize we’ve overestimated the heft of the mulched leaves. It’s like tugging at a tarp-full of sand. We stop to regrip, and Craig worries that his back won’t hold out. I take the lead to scooch the fat bag across the backyard, clamber up each side of the log walls dragging the fat back up the slope between us and unfurl it across the top between the log walls of my pile.

The crushed leaves blanket my pile, spewing out from containment of the tarp like a dry pyroclastic flow of flecks of carbon and dust that melts across the preceding mass of whole leaves. We collect four more tarp fulls, each load smaller than the previous to be able to keep dragging the tarp up over the top of my ever-higher pile. Never before has it received such a dense prize of organic matter, minced leaf mold already ripe for the making into fresh compost. The remains of a tree or two or three, upwards of a million leaves, have just exponentially expanded into billions of bits and pieces, which will cook down that much more quickly into new soil.

My pile has become such a spectacle that Craig’s young daughter comes out to play, first to play toss and catch with the dog, then to scamper up the slippery slope to the summit, where she buries a tennis ball for the dog to nose out. Her small feet hardly sink under the surface, my pile is that stiff and stout with crushed leaves. I think back to when my son was Kayla’s age, and him doing somersaults to disappear into the same space. This year, he’d bounce right off.

This year's pile has more gravitas than ever, and holds up well under play.

This year’s pile has more gravitas than ever, and holds up well under play.

The take of leaves from Craig’s yard far surpasses the gathering of leaves from my own lawn. In short order we’ve spruced up his streetscape and are mowing my lawn in tandem. He mulches the front patch of lawn while I make my way through the layers of sycamore leaves, maple and hickory, dispersing a few grass-catchers full of mulchings into the recesses of my pile.

It takes a village to make my pile. By midday we’ve made short work of both our yards and stop the mowers. It’s the first time in memory I’ve actually had the help of anyone in cleaning up my yard, and we toast our teamwork with two cold beers from the fridge.

Sipping my beverage on the back porch with Craig, I consider my pile. It’s a round mound, chest high, like it normally is this time of year when it’s fluffed up and airy and mostly whole leaves gathered en masse. I congratulate myself for taking such pains throughout the fall in layering the beginnings of my pile with as much seaweed and rich green organics as I could gather, for now the heap is engorged with a dense load of mulched leaves. I couldn’t be happier with my pile at this stage in the season.

There’s more to come. Craig directs my attention to the other across-the-street neighbor of my corner property. Jean-Luc, our neighbor, an ever-so-kind older man, has just finished raking a large pile of leaves onto his driveway. Another large pile rises from the corner of his yard, caddie-corner to Craig’s. I tell Craig that Jean Luc came by earlier in the morning to ask me for permission to park cars in my driveway tomorrow; he and his wife are having a family gathering.

Jean Luc is in the process of cleaning up his yard for the guests to come, but both Craig and I know that he will be hard-pressed to round up and do away with the leaves on his own. After I ask Craig if his back will hold out for a bit more work, we set our beers down and haul our mowers, tarps and rakes across the street to pitch in.

It's a clean, neighborhood sweep Craig and I tackle the neighbor's yard across the street.

It’s a clean sweep as Craig and I tackle the neighbor’s yard across the street.

I know now how yard crews can be so efficient at cleaning up a yard, for within an hour Craig and I have mowed and mulched Jean Luc’s yard of leaves and dispensed with the two large heaps of leaves gathered up on the pavement, using Craig’s tarp to drag the lot over to my pile.

My pile takes it all in, and in so doing has become the repository not only for all the leaves in my yard, but Craig’s and Jean Luc’s, not to mention the collections I’ve made already made from the other two neighbors along the two backsides of my corner property.

My pile is the now final resting place of leaves (and much more) from five homes in our close-knit neighborhood of small lots and helping friends. My pile has become much more than I ever thought it would. And best of all, once again and in the end, my pile is not finished. It’s just beginning…

My Pile: All the Trimmings

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.

A fresh batch of seaweed, spiked by sea grass, tamps down my pile on Thanksgiving day.

A fresh batch of seaweed, spiked by sea grass, tamps down my pile on Thanksgiving day.

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.

Rooting out a mess of leaves from the tenacious limbs of the forsythia hedgerow is always among the last tasks of the fall cleanup.

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.

The dark top portion is from underneath my forsythia hedgerows.

The dark portion of leaves atop my growing pile is from underneath my forsythia hedgerows.

My Pile: It Takes a Village

The Latin origin of compost is “compositum,” which can mean a few things, among them “made up of little pieces.” The word “compost” as we know it today, a “mixture of leaves, manure, etc., for fertilizing land,” stems from an Old French word, composte, the roots of which are “bring” and “together.”

My pile defines all that and more, both in and of itself and because of the way it brings together the small community that is made up of my nearest neighbors. It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same is true of my pile. I’ve come to share its building up with these neighbors, and we share alike the disbursement of the homegrown bounty that is its final result.

A good thing, too, because my pile now needs a little help from its friends. In recent years I’ve lost four rotted old swamp maples in my yard, undermined by the slow, pernicious work of carpenter ants and then toppled by the sudden coup de grace of a Nor’easter or hurricane. Gone, too, is a tulip magnolia in the front yard that in a future post I will take blame for killing with too much love in the form of a smothering load of wood chips. (I still mourn that specimen of a tree for its blossoms in the spring, less so for its waxy leaves that seemed immune to composting.)

Still, that’s five or more tall trees full of leaves that have gone missing from my pile. So much, that for the first time early this fall, I gave some thought to not having enough leaves and stuff of my own to fill my pile as it now stands between its twin log walls.

Good thing that my pile now takes in an ever greater supply of leaves and other compostibles from the neighboring homes that surround my corner property, four in all. In their own ways, my neighbors have come to value my pile, as a convenient depot for their own garden and kitchen waste, as well as a source for potting soil and refreshment of topsoil for their gardens. And that’s a very good thing for my pile.

The family whose home is to the back, southern side of my property nowadays simply rakes their leaves in their front yard into a big pile; they know before long I’ll be by with my handy bedsheet to drag them all away. They also keep their kitchen scraps in a lidded bucket by the back door for me to collect on a weekly basis. A homespun family of six that rarely goes out to eat, their kitchen contributions to my pile far outstrip that of my own.

An older, empty nest couple lives on the western side of my corner lot, and for them I haul away the leaves of the sycamore tree on my side of the fence that collect in messy drifts in their driveway. You could argue (and I think they do over the dinner table) that all those leaves are my responsibility anyway. I don’t mind; they are sweet super seniors who are ever-friendly when talking over the short fence that separates us, and who often bring over home-baked goods.  Besides, I’ve read that sycamore leaves make particularly good leaf mold.

My pile is gluttonous, and I have no problem spending a few minutes cleaning up their yard in the fall or shoveling snow from their steps in winter. My pile is a mix of altruism and self-interest, which is another way to define community.

My other neighbor across the street, to the north, donates grass clippings from his mower basket all summer long; he also gives me a shopping bag full of rabbit bedding and pellets every week or so, from the family pet. In the fall he bags most of his leaves, though I’ll pitch in when he cleans the leaves from along the street we share, and drag a load over to my pile.

The fourth adjoining neighbor, a retiree who lives with his wife in a home she grew up in across the other street of my corner lot, to the east, used to spend hours sucking up leaves from their small, tidy lawn with a vacuum attachment to his electric leaf blower. It would take him an afternoon to fill a garbage can or two with pureed mulch, which he would then load into his pickup truck to take to the yard-waste center.

We’re friendly, and I was only too happy to take the burdensome can of finely chopped leaves off his hands. It always made a fine addition to my much more fulsome heap of whole leaves.

Most prized are the contributions from the two large Japanese maple trees in his yard, which drop their vibrant crimson leaves late each fall, in a shudder like Harry Potter’s whomping willow. I covet those delicate, star-shaped leaves each fall like no other, and over the past several years have gladly crossed the street with my rake and bedsheet to sweep them up and add them to my pile, icing on a cake.

A closeup of the Japanese maple leaves, a prized addition to my pile.

A closeup of the Japanese maple leaves, a prized addition to my pile.

It’s the color that attracts me, though I am intrigued to find that I might be swayed by more basic instincts.

Joanna Klein explain things further, both the poetry and the science, in a New York Times article, “Why Does Fall Foliage Turn So Red and Fiery? It Depends.”

“Leaves scream their final cries in color before dropping to the ground. Their shouts — in golden, crimson or scarlet — eventually fade to brown bellows, and their lifeless bodies dry up on the forest floor. It absorbs their crinkly corpses and that’s it — worm food. The fall of a leaf in autumn is an orchestrated death. A complex, brilliant, beautiful death.

“When you think of it as watching the death of leaves, it sounds morbid, but it’s captivating nonetheless. Does the way some turn red in the process serve any purpose?

“Leaves actually start out yellow. Chlorophyll, the chemical responsible for giving leaves their green appearance and converting light to energy during photosynthesis, just overpowers it in the spring and summer. But when temperature, daylight and weather events like rain or drought cause leaves to die in the fall, chlorophyll breaks down and reveals the yellow or orange helper chemicals known as carotenes or carotenoids that were there all along.

“Red is another story, because it’s made on purpose. As some leaves die, they produce chemicals called anthocyanins (also found in the skin of grapes and apples) from built up sugars. These chemicals produce a red pigment that can combine with green pigments left from chlorophyll and display different shades of red.”

“How bright this red is depends on what species the leaf belongs to, its inherent genetics and the environment around it …. but the question still remains: Why do some leaves use precious energy to turn red right before dying?

“According to a 2007 paper, published in The Botanical Review, red and yellow fall leaves could be flashing arrows that attract birds and mammals to a tree’s fruits. Animals that stop by for a bite will then do what animals do, dispersing the seeds as they go, thereby aiding in the species’ survival. On the other hand, colored leaves could work like the wings of the monarch butterfly, warning others about bad-tasting defensive poisons or chemicals that tend to be in red leaves.

“But this could be wrong, too. Pests laying eggs in the fall might prefer drab plants rather than bright ones, leaving the bright ones to survive. “It may be an ‘I’m super-healthy, don’t bother’ signal to potential insects, pests, or parasites that they should look elsewhere,” Kerissa Battle, a community science educator at Community Greenways Collaborative, wrote in an email. But then again, she said, the red color could also signal that a leaf is on its way out, and there’s not much healthy stuff left to eat before it drops.”

For me, red in a leaf is like a matador’s cape to a bull — an irresistible signal to gather what I can, while I can, from wherever I can, for my pile. And when the delicate, scalloped, deep scarlet leaves of the Japanese maples fall upon my neighbor’s lawn, I’m there to catch them practically before they land. Otherwise, I’ll miss out on them if not altogether, then at least as a whole.

Over time, my neighbor wore out his little blower turned leaf sucker. He now mows his leaves into mulch on the ground, rakes them onto a big blue tarp and drags the load across the street over to my pile. If I’m around, I’m happy to help. My neighbor is very happy with our arrangement, and now spends a fraction of the time he once did in cleaning up his yard each fall.

There’s actually a fifth neighbor who comes into play with my pile. My neighbor’s neighbor across the street is a single woman who lives with her elderly father; her house is lorded over by several large oak trees, many of which fall on the street side of her white picket fence. I still have the thank-you card she kindly sent me after a buddy and I swept her leaves along the street onto my bedsheet and dragged them over to my pile. The card reads, “Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.

Since the late 1980s, Connecticut towns have been required to recycle a number of things, including all leaves. Most of the yard waste is collected at a town-run facility on the other side of town. I’ve heard that the town’s yard waste used to be composted locally, but some years back the local recycling operation was blocked by neighborhood opposition to the thought of mold spores emanating from the facility.

So the town shut down the composting facility and sold off its machinery. (Once nearly denuded of trees, our part of the Northeast is now heavily wooded, and I can’t imagine how you’d make the argument that a local compost yard would produce any kind of mold that’s different from what comes out of all the other woods and bogs and fields and yards that make up our part of the world, but that’s NIMBY for you.)

In our neighborhood, the composting is very much an IMBY affair. Aside from generating lots of nice neighborly feelings, I figure my pile now takes in the bulk of leaves from nearly a three-acre reach of suburbia, counting pavement. That’s six homes that have gone “off the grid” of the town’s fall leaf cleanup.

My pile is awesome…


My Pile: Full of Sheet

My father introduced me and my brother to the convenience of using an old bed sheet for gathering up autumn leaves. We lived in Kentucky at the time, on a two-acre lot with a parkland spread of mature hardwood trees that produced copious amounts of leaves each fall.

We’d rake the leaves into big piles, spread a sheet across the just-swept ground next to the pile and rake and “kick-walk” the leaves high onto the sheet.

Of course, this process works only if you have a nearby place to dispose of the leaves en masse, and we did – across the street was a wooded ravine that sloped down to a creek, too steep to develop as a home lot.

Gathering together two corners each, like a king-sized hammock, we’d drag the sheet, bulging with leaves, across the street and unfurl it down the steep slope that began just past the pavement.

I’ve used the same old bed sheet in my much smaller yard for the past four or five years. It’s battle-scarred, ripped by sticks, stained by mud and tannins and sporting a duct-tape patch over a tear in the middle that a few years threatened to render it useless. The tear has been joined by a few new small rips, but the sheet is still serviceable.

I rake a patch of lawn or the side of the street clear of leaves and spread the sheet downwind of the pile. I cover the sheet with leaves, pluck up the four corners and twist them together, then sling the bag over my shoulder. I feel like Santa Claus delivering the bag of leaves to my pile.

It’s quickest and easiest to move leaves by staying close to the ground with a bedsheet, blanket or tarp.

Depending on the amount of moisture within the leaves, or whether the piles I’m making are from mulching with the mower, each sheet-load weighs, I’d guess, 50 pounds or so. Sometimes it’s light enough for me to swing off my shoulder and fling up onto the pile, more often I clamber up the log staircase on one side of the pile and drag the sheet up to the top. I release the bottom two corners and pull the top two toward me. With a little fididdling, I can usually draw the emptying sheet toward me to drop its payload on just the part of the pile I want.

To my mind, it’s far easier and rewarding to gather up my leaves in this way and keep them on-site. My old bed sheet does the trick; I also have a 3 ft. x 5 ft. rope-rigged plastic tarp for smaller or heavier jobs.

The alternative: stuffing a dozen or more tall brown bags with leaves each time I’m out in my yard, holds little appeal. For one, it’s hard to grasp a mess of leaves. And jamming leaves down the throat of an open-ended brown paper bag is a frustrating lesson in proving the 90-percent air theory of leaves; it takes forever to stuff a bag full, even if you don’t rip it first with a stray branch or wayward tine.

I know most people are happy for the town to take all those bags off their hands or hire out a service and be left with a blown-clean yard, but I see both as a colossal yearly waste of municipal resources, and my own.

The yearly cleanup of leaves is a costly burden to communities across the nation. Pick a suburban town at random, say, The City of Oak Park, Michigan. The town runs a leaf-pickup program in which residents rake leaves from their property into rows along the street. Crews come by once a week in October and “generally” every two weeks in November and December.

Leaves raked to the gutter line of a street in Oak Park, Mich., at a high cost to the town.

Leaves raked to the gutter line of a street in Oak Park, Mich., at a high cost to the town.

Its website reports: “With municipal budgets being squeezed further each year, the expense of leaf collection/composting programs is being scrutinized as well. One study reported the average cost of a municipal leaf collection program per 1,000 population of $2,353.41.”

Tallying up the cost of equipment and labor, Oak Park spends about $370 per mile of curb to vacuum up leaves each fall.

“Since before 1995 when the Federal Solid Waste Management Act eliminated the disposal of yard waste in landfills and the Clean Air Act simultaneously became more stringent regarding burning of tree leaves, homeowners have become accustomed to raking leaves to the curb for collection. However, ongoing research at Michigan State University, Purdue University and others has demonstrated numerous benefits to mulching leaves on-site including, improved soil organic matter, nutrient levels and reduced presence of broadleaf weeds.”

I’ll get around to explaining what my pile allows me to return to the yard each season later, but to take all this material away from its source, midstream in the life cycle, seems a clear-cut loss to me. No wonder companies sell so much fertilizer each spring, after so many consumers spend so much paying to have it taken away from their homes each fall.

Mark Gilliland, writing for the New York State Conservationist, spells out the situation in more detail and offers a solution for New Yorkers to “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em”:

“To maintain a healthy lawn, fall’s leaves must be managed in some way. If you live in a city, town or village, many of these municipalities provide a service to pick up the leaves and take them to a compost facility. Often a portion of this compost is made available to residents. Compost can be used as mulch, tilled into the soil or spread in a thin layer on the lawn. It retains soil moisture, adds nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, and improves soil structure.

“While collecting leaves and composting on a large scale is great, in densely populated suburban areas this may not always be a cost-effective and available option, and it can have drawbacks. For municipal pickup, leaves are frequently raked or blown into piles on the curb. Sometimes these piles spread out, creating a safety hazard for drivers and pedestrians. Leaf piles can also wash into storm drains, clogging storm sewers and causing flooding. Some communities require homeowners to put their leaves into bags by the curb. Aside from the amount of effort it takes to move bagged or loose leaves to the curb for pick up, where destination facilities are distant, the transportation takes a lot of fuel and generates emissions.

There is another option for property owners to deal with fall’s bounty of leaves: an initiative that the Village of Irvington in Westchester County and some local municipalities have instituted. It’s called “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.” Simply put, the idea is to mulch (shred) your leaves in place. It’s an easy practice to do, and has a number of benefits, including:

  • Keeps your property healthy: Leaf mulch recycles nutrients into your soil to feed your plants, improves soil health, helps retain moisture (reducing the need for watering in dry spells), and provides additional winter coverage for plant roots.
  • Saves money: Helps keep your taxes down by reducing municipal leaf pickup and costs associated with municipal composting or disposal.
  • Saves effort: Many homeowners (and landscapers) find that mulching leaves in place is easier than raking or blowing them to the curb or stuffing leaves into bags.
  • Helps the planet: Avoids the energy use and air emissions associated with transporting leaves to a distant composting or disposal facility.”
A common sight in these parts each fall; seems to me a waste of labor and resources.

A common sight in these parts each fall; seems to me a waste of labor and resources.


I do admit to having some envy for the lawn maintenance crews that use a vacuum hose to scarf up leaves and shred them to pieces into a big wooden box in the back of a pick-up or two-ton. What use I could make of all that finely chopped leaf litter!

But my homestyle method works for me and my pile, and a few sheetfuls helps all the way around. I know my pile will soon settle down into itself. I always try to add a layer or two of green stuff between loads or at the end, and I know I’ll be able to repeat the feeding in a day or two.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould! Painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living.”

My Pile: Falling Into Place

It’s a Saturday in the lingering warm autumn days of mid-November, the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday. With a soaking rain due to arrive on Sunday, high time to do the final fall yard cleanup and fully stuff my pile.

Leaf season in these parts lasts about six weeks, beginning in early October when the first leaves start to flutter down from the tops of the maples and sycamores that ring my yard. Some fall on the lawn and garden and gutters; many seem to find their way to the street, where they are then blown to the curb by passing cars and delivery trucks.

I focus on the street leaves first, as they’re easy to rake up in piles to transport wholesale to my pile. It keeps the gutters and storm drains from clogging and makes me look like a good neighbor, in a curb-appeal sort of way. And my pile, its coffers emptied, will take in all it can get.

As the trees withdraw their stores of energy from the canopy down to their roots, they shed their colorful crop in measured doses, spiked by a blustery fall storm or cold snap.

This steady retreat is halted at ground level, where the plantings extend their growing season until the last possible moment. Most autumns, the lawn kicks in with a burst of renewed growth, spurred on by warm days, cooler nights and fall rains; in flush years I have to mow it weekly through the fall. The kitchen garden hangs on with its diminishing returns until the first hard frost, usually in late October. The perennials and small shrubs and ornamental trees that now crowd my garden beds hang on to their color and berries nearly till Thanksgiving.

By mid-November, the big trees have shed their leaves, while other parts of the yard hang in there.

By mid-November, the tall trees have shed their leaves, while the shrubs and bushes cling to their season’s growth.

All of this seasonal growth is dispatched to my pile according to its schedule, and my own, which turns out to be exactly what we both need. The process of putting my lawn and garden to bed for the winter and filling up my pile is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s certainly the most active, a race to harvest the year’s outpourings and put them to a creative, productive end use. And what better time to be outdoors and soaking in the daylight of a lingering Indian summer before the long New England winter sets in.

For a very cool look at how this seasonal cycle of growth plays out on a global level, check out this NASA animation of the yearly cycle of plant life on the land and in the water. The place I hold on this map turns from brown to green and back again.

My pile follows a yearly cycle of growth, as this NASA animation of the earth's biosphere attests. (Click on image to see it play out.)

My pile follows a yearly cycle of growth, as this NASA animation of the earth’s biosphere attests. (Click on image to see it play out.)

Green grass and brown leaves are the two main components of my suburban backyard pile, by bulk. As I start my pile each fall, it’s easy to add heaping layers of each – an after-work session of leaf raking, followed by a weekend mow. At its most basic level, the most productive compost pile is one with a healthy proportion of fresh green things and dead brown material. A pile of cut grass cooks itself into a rotten mess; a pile of leaves just sits there. Mixed together, they have real chemistry.

As much as I can, I add a host of other ingredients to my pile, mostly aimed at following a layered approach to building up my pile for an active winter season of internal combustion of green and brown.

Here’s how it plays out in my backyard: If I rake up a batch of leaves one day after work, the next day I’ll take the dog for a run on the beach. I bring with me a plastic bucket – the kind you use to set a beer keg in and fill with ice – and scrap up a bucket-full of seaweed from the high-tide line to take home with me back to my pile. In my town, dogs are allowed back on the public beaches on Oct. 1; he loves chasing after a tennis ball, and I’ll take every chance I get to collect seaweed while we’re at it.

Later in the week, I’ll hit another spot in my yard or the street for more leaves, then add a bucket full of kitchen scraps, from both my house and my neighbor’s; or perhaps another neighbor has left a shopping bag full of shavings and poop from their rabbit hutch. Or I’ll stop by Starbuck’s for a groaning bag of coffee grounds.

“The word harvest comes from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck,” I find on “The season we call fall was once referred to simply as “harvest” to reflect the time when farmers gathered their crops for winter storage, roughly between August and November. Astronomically, the season lasts from the end of the September until December, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“In the early 1600s as more people started moving into cities, the word harvest fell out of use. Instead, city dwellers began to use the phrase ‘fall of the leaf’ to refer to the third season of the year when trees lose their leaves. The word fall comes from the Old English word feallan which means ‘to fall or to die.'”  (The word autumn comes from the ancient Etruscan root autu- and has within it connotations of the passing of the year. It was borrowed by the neighbouring Romans, and became the Latin word autumnus. As more people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns, the word harvest lost its reference to the time of year and came to refer only to the actual activity of reaping, and autumn, as well as fall, began to replace it as a reference to the season. Evidently, I read further, nowadays only the British use “autumn.”)

In any event, and at last, inexorably, every autumn my pile falls into place. Each harvest of pluckings gathered from kitchen, beach or dumpster is topped off by the latest collection of fallen leaves. If mulched into pieces, all the better.

The “at last” of leaf drop varies from season to season, though the timing is increasingly much up in the air. “As the seasonal change creeps later into the year, not only here but all across the northern United States and Canada, the glorious colors will last longer,” writes Craig S. Smith in The New York Times in a 2016 article, “How a Changing Climate Is Shaping a Leaf Peeper’s Paradise.”

“We only have to read Henry David Thoreau to know that climate change is pushing the changing colors into the year,” Smith continues. “In his 1862 essay, “Autumnal Tints,” the naturalist wrote: ‘By the twenty-five of September, the Red Maples generally are beginning to be ripe. Some large ones have been conspicuously changing for a week, and some single trees are now very brilliant.”

Nowadays? “‘In general, peak leaf color in Concord and the surrounding Boston area for these maples is now more typically a week or two later,’ than what Thoreau observed, said Richard Primack, a biology professor at Boston University.”

In fact, Smith cites data that sound even worse. Looking at autumn color in a central Massachusetts forest studied form 1993 to 2010, he predicts that “the duration of the fall display would increase about one day for every 10 years.” That’s a week per lifetime, and may explain why I feel like I’ve been raking leaves for a lifetime this fall, and will continue into December.

The point is, this slow-motion fall does give me time to add that many successive layers of sundry green additions, which contribute their own energy and froth to the mix. Though after every work session with my pile, as much as I tell myself that this is no garden-variety pile that I am making, it always ends up looking the same – a big, boring old heap of dead leaves.

Until, that is, the first hard freeze of fall, when this multi-layered approach gives the unmistakable sign that my backyard bio-engineering is paying off: On frosty mornings a vent of steam rises from the crown of my pile like the tell-tale plume of a brewing volcano. I won’t much disturb this big fat brown cocoon until early spring, and then only to add fresh hot compostibles to it. Until then, I know my pile will be cooking under its own weight and energy. It’s taken in everything that I can throw into it, and will now make that lot its own.

Proof that my multi-layered approach pays off; steam rising from the depths of my pile in late fall.

Proof that my multi-layered approach pays off; steam rising from the depths of my pile in late fall.