The capacity of my pile to absorb ever more never ceases to amaze me. It is not so much a bottomless pit, as a topless one.
Over the years, I’ve fine-tuned my fall cleanup. Given the size of my backyard and the time and inclination I have to give to it, I find it simplest — quickest and most efficient, quieter, too — to rake up a batch of leaves by arm and hand rather than to mow and blow and mulch with motorized implements. I figure about half of each season’s leaves goes straight into the pile, wholesale, by gathering up sheets of leaves scraped up from across the lawn and garden beds with a spring-tined metal rake.
Some people hate the very idea of raking leaves, or yard cleanup of any kind. I find it a pleasant excuse to spend time outdoors doing some meditative busy work, crossing a chore of home ownership off the list without having to write a check. For a gardener, raking provides a tactile connection to the ground you tend. I like touching virtually every square foot of my property, at least once a year. Sweeping the ground clean of fallen leaves is a peculiar cross between vacuuming the carpet and giving the dog a scratchy massage.
Heavy lifting? Hardly, if you pace yourself and the ground you sweep clear. A single leaf, untouched by rain or morning dew and dried to a crisp by the sun of an Indian summer, weighs next to nothing. A pile of leaves amounts to more air than anything else. As if to prove the hack golfer’s axiom, a tree really is 90 percent air, even — especially — when its canopy of leaves is splayed flat across the ground.
Every few days through the fall, I try to make time to collect and deposit loads of this ephemeral fluff up across the top of my pile until it spills over the sides, strains against the wire fence stretched across the back and cascades down the open front, each leaf finding its own angle of repose.
Every load gathered up in an old bedsheet is a cottonball of dry, crinkly fluff. It takes only two or three sheetfuls and 20 minutes of time to both tidy up my small tree-lined suburban yard and to fill my pile to capacity for the day. It’s a rhythm that I keep throughout the fall. I enjoy the exercise and the satisfaction of sweeping up such easy pickings.
By volume, the size of my pile is limited by the two rows of logs on either side and the length of wire garden fence, about 9 feet, stretched between the two logs on the back.
Culled from a large maple in my backyard that fell to a Nor’easter a couple years ago, these log pillars are set in ascending order, to better step up and along. So in all, my pile then is about 9 feet wide and 10 or so feet deep. Using the log sides as stepping stones is a bit of a balancing act, but I can generally drag a load of leaves up the sloping front and deposit the batch directly on top.
In years past, when my son was small enough to clamber up the row of logs that brace either side of the pile, he and his friends would delight in jumping in, to be swallowed whole. Their antics would help flatten and smoosh the air out the pile, allowing me to add even more.
He’s long outgrown jumping into a pile of leaves, and as I’ve stepped up my scrounging efforts, my pile is no longer fit for little kids to be free-falling through the coffee grounds, seaweed and rabbit poop that I now add in copious amounts. My pile is now my playground alone.
A freshly topped pile after a day of yard cleanup. It will soon breathe out and settle back into itself, ready to receive more.
I enjoy the busyness of fall, which for my nascent pile begins in early October when the first leaves begin to drop from the swamp maples and the ever-messy sycamores. I tend to and add to my pile through each season, until it’s ready to harvest in late summer. But the bulk of my pile is amassed over six or so weeks of autumn, with the last big round-up of leaves coming over the Thanksgiving holiday.
As Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Gathering Leaves,”
Spades take up leaves
No better than spoons,
And bags full of leaves
Are light as balloons.
I make a great noise
Of rustling all day
Like rabbit and deer
But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.
I may load and unload
Again and again
Till I fill the whole shed,
And what have I then?
Next to nothing for weight,
And since they grew duller
From contact with earth,
Next to nothing for color.
Next to nothing for use.
But a crop is a crop,
And who’s to say where
The harvest shall stop?
I stumbled across the poem while reading an article by Les Line in Audubon Magazine, “In Living Color,” in which the author puts some hard numbers to go along with the poetry in tallying up the season’s leaves, which “fall and fall and fall in uncountable numbers.”
“However, it is possible to calculate their total weight, or mass,” Line writes. “For example, the annual leaf-fall mass in a mature mixed hardwood forest in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia ranged from 1.57 to 2.45 tons per acre during the first 19 years of an ongoing study led by U.S. Forest Service soil scientist Mary Beth Adams. ‘It varies a lot from year to year, depending on rainfall, temperature, and insect outbreaks,” she told me, adding that the long-term average was 1.83 tons an acre.”
I read elsewhere that the average mature tree has some 200,000 leaves, which weigh about 60 pounds in sum. Of course, like the trees of Lake Wobegon, I think of my trees as all above average. At least it seems that way, as each bedsheet full of leaves seems to weigh at least 60 pounds, and account for only a portion of the gathered cast-offs.
If the weather and my work schedule cooperates, I can put in an hour or two after work several times a week — at least until daylight savings robs me of that last hour of workable sunlight. It’s enough to rake up a load of leaves from underneath a tree or from along the street gutters that contain my corner lot. Weekends are for fuller clean-ups.
There’s something about using a two-stroke combustion engine to recycle green energy from my yard that strikes me as off-putting. As I’m tooling about in the garden after work or on the weekend, I’d rather listen to the tines of my rake scraping across the ground or pavement than the blast of a leaf blower. I also like the exercise raking affords, the basic movement a combination of a hockey playing taking a slap shot and conductor waving a baton. There is an art to raking, after all. Poets don’t write odes to a leaf blower.
What’s more, the high-revving motor of my old Toro or newer blower spew a worrisome amount of exhaust. On the “Fun Times Guide” website, I read that “In one year’s time, that little leaf blower engine you hear buzzing up the street pumps out as much smog-forming pollution as 80 cars, each driven 12,500 miles, according to a California air quality agency.”
The author adds, “In addition to blowing leaves, there is a considerable amount of trash, dust, dirt and other allergens that are sent airborne as a result of using a leaf blower. This could greatly affect those susceptible to respiratory problems (such as asthma).”
That said, a leaf blower does have its labor-saving moments, and my lawn mower does a good and necessary job mulching volumes of leaves into a fraction of their former selves.
Though I add many leaves wholesale to my pile, mulching with the mower vastly reduces their volume.
Chopped-up leaves are manna to my pile.
Getting sliced and diced by the whirring blades of a lawnmower turns each leaf into many more bite-sized meals to all the things that want a piece of it. Most anything is more vulnerable to attack if injured, and decay begins at the edges.
My pile is firstly about deconstruction: of a whole leaf, banana peel or or egg shell into ever-smaller increments, mostly by something eating something else, and pooping it. Then you die and become a meal for something else, usually smaller. I couldn’t give you the technical definition of entropy, but have a feeling that my pile is a pretty good example. Things fall apart in my pile, according to laws governing both biology and thermodynamics — along with some more magical dark arts, it often seems.
Even a pile that is already stuffed seems always able to accept a load of leaves, especially when they’r mulched. A load or two of the dry, dusty stuff also makes a good cap for my pile, especially when I’m cleaning up the yard ahead of a coming storm. Mulched leaves don’t scatter in the wind, they soak up any rain that may come, and spread across the top give my pile a manicured, maybe even a little manufactured, look.
It’s also heavy, a blanket to throw over my pile to help it settle, to get it cooking under its own increasing layered mass.
Come late fall, when my pile is stuffed, I mulch the last of the leaves back into the yard. What’s good for the gander, is good for the goose.
The best, most productive way to shrink a pile is to just add water, and all it takes to shrink my pile is to wait for a good soaking rain. (Raking a patch of leaves soaked by fall rains is another matter altogether, one that I try hard to avoid. Each load I spread atop my pile is like a wet blanket.) But water is weight, and in the right proportion, it is also the catalyst for all the energy my pile will consume and create over the next few months.
If it’s dry, as this fall’s been, before I put away the garden hose for the winter, I’ll poke the end of it into the innards of my pile and turn the tap on for a few minutes. By mid-fall, my pile’s about the size and shape of an old VW beetle, and I imagine I’m sticking the hose through the sunroof to soak the inside.
You can see the weight of the water sucking the pile back into itself, and no doubt the wetness helps activate its inner workings. Heck, I’d be thirsty, too, if I’d just ingested a half-dozen trees’ worth of leaves. I leave the hose on for 10 or 20 minutes, and figuring a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, I’m adding a hundred or more pounds to my pile, say a bathtub’s worth. If I’ve done my layering and mulching right, my pile soaks up all the water like a sponge.
A good compost pile is a mix of green and brown organic matter, air, and water. Here, I give my pile a drink after a fall-leaf cleanup in early November.
Sometimes I take a bucket of sand from the beach and spread it across the top. Grains of sand may seem like spreading fairy dust across my pile, but there’s heft to it, and I imagine the grains percolating down through the mass of leaves and greens, contributing in their own way to the organic stew that is my pile. Unlike water, sand is immutable, a direct deposit to my pile.
Along with air and all the organic and inorganic material that adds up to my pile, water is the other key catalyst, and I try to find the right balance by combining them all. (Eventually, especially after my pile has been covered by a heavy blanket of snow, the trick to keeping my pile alive is to breathe air back into it, with pitchfork or other tool. But that’s a story for another day.)
My pile is an accordion that expands with each fresh effort, a squeezebox that in its own sweet time produces its own sweet harmonies.