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.
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.
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.”
- Mulching tree leaves: an alternative to disposal
- Turfgrass Information File (search on keyword “Mulch”)
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.”
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.”