Thursday, November 5, 2009

Leaf Raking

My friend -- I believe them on all things environmental and weedy -- said that they were raking leaves... to which I was inspired to write about my not raking leaves.

They also reminded me that as we live very very close to the Atlantic Ocean and the salt-hay marsh that our residence is an intruder on the saltwater wetland... and though they are a bit inland they noted that they are intruders on a freshwater wetland. Oh, my, we have so much responsibility in so little time.

When it occurred to me after reading Bill McKibben’s book (Deep Economy), and my reaching out to friend Mr. McKibben on FB -- on the day that he was doing an intensive at, -- the primary a reason we do not live in a super-kool place (like Ithaca, NY) is that we don’t do enough in the intensive local of ‘me’ to make our daily place super-kool. Not raking leaves, and feeding sparrows at the bird feeder makes for a portion of my answer to the feeling of uncoolness to be overcome.

First appearance of this article is at, which means that an editor looked at it and made modest corrections, said nice things to me, and had sense enough to show me where it made no sense whatsoever at all... things like the subtle difference between if it were the leaves that were indignant at my laziness, or my family, or the neighbors, or the yard police. At times it can be very important to know exactly who it is that is indignant. Regardless, if you have the energy and the wherewithal to hop over to my posting on Blogcritics and leave a comment on my leafy commentary it just may encourage me to keep gassing on in a similar vein, and it may attract a few more readers, and a few more lawn care savants to consider -- to rake or not to rake, there is no question.


I want to share some thoughts on leaf raking.

We live in a suburban neighborhood on Long Island that is lowly enough, working class and lower, where neighbors pretty much let neighbors be, though we do relate with each other. Guy across the street has turned his lot into a pool-table flatness of green lawn over the last few years. For decades it was a jungle of vines, poison ivy, and dead fallen branches. Now he has it mowed regularly and he put in sprinklers (note: though he works the lawn he does not mow it himself). Neighbor on the other corner works as a groundskeeper for a local school district... which means he mows a whole lot of lawns, and his lot is pristine, except the area where he stores his weekend freelance equipment and plays with tuning up his chopper.

Though I have no qualms about mowing the lawn, and enjoy the work, the smell of new-mown grass, and the pleasure of a flat (well, almost flat) green area, I also like weeds. I do have qualms about the use of fertilizer and herbicides. I enjoy plants that persist on their own – so our lawn is not exactly a monoculture of bluegrass fescue. When I do mow I avoid disturbing the devil’s paintbrush, and I never mow when the violets are hardy.

For a few years now I have been resisting mowing the lawn at all, and in particular I hold out until the grass that will grow in the acidic/sandy soil will seed. It is not easy to get grass to grow in our lawn and there are areas of persistent dirt. There are also areas where moss seems to thrive, and I like moss. I will even introduce moss into the scene. The failure to mow I call my "prairie restoration project." I do this act of landscape resistance in fear all summer long that the self-appointed citizen "lawn police" will come down on me for having a house that looks abandoned. They do come down on me if I leave bricks lying about in obvious piles (I threaten back that I am storing up to build a large bear sculpture). I think about maybe installation of an interpretive sign. People do like to read things. The professional lawn-mowing neighbor occasionally stops around when he walks his dog and asks if everything is OK with us.

We have oak trees, whose leaves are fairly acidic as leaves go. Raking leaves in our household is not a communal activity... if it gets done I get to do it alone. I get to mow alone also. There is nothing wrong with this, to my mind, it is just that it is lonely, and in preference to a lonely mow I would rather watch a group of sparrows fight at the feeder.

There is also a difference of opinion as to the proper disposal of leaves. I am a stubborn and frugal sort on some things, and this is one of them. Most leaf raking activity that I see in our neighborhood consists of putting the leaves in paper bags and setting them out on the street. My immediate reaction to this practice is wondering why my neighbors are giving away their biological wealth. The trees suck up nutrients from the ground of the lot, they put a portion of that into their leaves, then they drop their leaves, and we bag them up and send them away to a landfill site – or a facility near the landfill where they are processed into mulch, which we can then pay for, spending more energy to drive our cars around with processed dead leaves bagged up in the trunk. This makes absolutely no sense to me.

It costs fuel-energy to run the trucks to move the leaves. This is also true of all the leaf-blower machines that are so active in the autumn season (though I am all in favor of keeping the illegal alien population busy and employed, particularly out in the Hamptons)... Yesterday I saw a man using a pressure washer to move leaves (not to clean, but to move leaves) off of a commercial sidewalk. I will be the first to say that using a pressure washer for this purpose is a whole lot of fun, but it is, to be honest, an indulgence, a waste of a finite energy resource – though the guy did not look like the brightest mind on Long Island and I felt that at least he could be proud of his work. Hydro-power blowing includes throwing away otherwise potable water, in our case water processed through the public system, water sucked out of the Pine Barrens aquifer. Though I suppose after impacting a concrete sidewalk it goes somewhere.

At one point last year I considered an investment in pelletizing machines for a garage-industry to take tree leaves and turn them into fuel pellets for pellet stoves. I am interested in suburban recycling on a DIY basis. And I was really pissed about the cost of fuel oil to heat the house. Though tree leaves are not anticipated to produce as much heat as wood pulp, the lower energy return may be balanced by the fact that they are recycled and zeroed against the energy saved by not having to truck them to the landfill.

When I do rake the leaves (note, I say "when I do") I have locations on the property where I rake them into a pile and leave them. In essence our lot in life becomes one large composting operation. This hording of leaves seems to bother my associates to the point that they refuse to participate in the making of piles, no matter what I say – and if I cannot win an argument at home then how can I expect to go up against the entire lawn care industry? And who will buy all of those paper bags? I notice that not putting leaves in bags takes less time and energy, on my part, than simply raking them into a corner below the butterfly bush. Used to be I raked them across the street into what is now the pool-table lawn, back when it was a jungle and I could readily hide my organic subversion, and they composted up real well for garden soil. The energy expended in that transaction was the equivalent of a beer and a sandwich. Though nowadays what I also notice is that we have a fairly amazing population of worms on the property. I like to keep them well fed and happy.

I have also got in the habit, over the years, of holding out later and later into the fall season in the hope that there will be a groundswell of familial indignation at the steady accumulation of leaves on the lawn. Enough leaves piled up in layers will form an impermeable mattress to suffocate whatever green stuff we have growing there, threatening to make us Orgreases appear even more dejected and socially unsavory next summer. But that seems a false promise of a poor strategy.

Nowadays I simply let the leaves fall and the snow land and melt (it only stays for a few days), and I leave the leaves alone until spring when it dries up a bit so that I may give in and, alone, go rake leaves, or not.

I’m not sure about the psychological implications of off-season leaf raking. It is nice to talk about leaf raking with leaf raking peers. It is a variation on the usual chatter about the weather and climate change and the impending extinction of human life as we know it. "Have you noticed how the leaves fell sooner and they had a tinge of purple to them? I hear in Vermont the tourist industry is going gangbusters. Yes, it is terrible. Terrible. We need to do something about the international leaf problem." This spring, though, the crocuses got there with their life mission before I did. I was hesitant to rake the leaves because I wanted to see the pretty crocuses... purple, white, yellow... scattered haphazardly around the "lawn." I feel less depressed when I see them. They bring on the audacity of hope. So what happened is that I thought, “Oh, my gawd... this year I have really done it. I have killed the lawn.”

But nobody told the lawn that it was dead, and the grass, the weeds, the wild lettuce, the white clover, and the poison ivy all just came right up and flourished. It was so damned abundant that I worried I was in even more danger of being caught by the yard police. I broke down and mowed once this year (it helped that the town sent me a threatening letter). I am not exactly sure where all of the oak leaves went but I did absolutely nothing at all about them. And I suspect that we have an organic biomass cycle ongoing here where we are not using up energy of any sort to deplete the wealth of our small lot. Or at least I fancy that is the case.

In future I may add to my prairie restoration spiel and tell folks that I am indignant that we are not allowed to burn leaves, that I love the smell of burned leaves, and that I refuse by civil disobedience to rake leaves until I am given back my American individual free citizen entitlement to burn leaves and stink up the neighborhood. I will proudly flash my NRA membership card just to reinforce my leaf-bagging resistance.

There is one other consequence of my laziness that I notice this year. When my neighbor with the pool-table lawn comes back from a day out on his boat and stands bare-chested on his lawn, he has to keep swatting at the skeeters. A hundred feet away I sit on my porch and don’t notice any skeeters. I notice all the spiders, and I am often frustrated when I walk out the front door in the morning and I get a web in the face, but we don’t have nearly the skeeter population of our neighbor. I would like to ask him if everything is OK, but I can look out across the street and quickly see that it is.


  1. I, too, think it is unconsionable to allow the city to ruin the enviornment by hauling leaves away with an internal combustion engine. (not to mention the enviornmental cost of making, distributing and selling big paper bags for a one-time use) We have lived at our house here in Portland for 14 years and never put a single leaf out for city pickup. We do rake (loads of fun for me) and put them along the back fence, where I turn them over with a pitch fork and shift the pile down along the fence about every other year, which takes about 3 hours. Each year about 6 or 8 cubic yards of leaves go into my leaf composting system, and this past two years it has produced about half a cubic yard of real nice soil, good for the garden, house plants, etc.


  2. Also, I think this is what the "Deep Economy" is about--take care of your own leaves, and don't give your money to the corporteering pirates for big paper bags.

    Although, my neighbor Angus has a good scheme. He collects the paper bags of leaves up and down the street and piles them against his foundation to reduce his heating costs, THEN composts them the next spring. I may just do that myself this year, but I'll have to make some kind of deal with Angus so we don't compete over the nearest bags of leaves.

  3. What's worse is seeing the PLASTIC bags that people use to bag their leaves. I had a bad summer a couple years ago where I didn't give a rat's derrierre that the town kept sending me nasty grams because my "yard" was too tall. They finally came and mowed down my front garden, which I hadn't weeded that year. Too many other weeds in my life at the time to deal with. They finally got their $300 out of me, but at my refusal. It was only because they collected it on my taxes the following year. It never occurred to those people who live in the town where "community and tradition thrive" to ask if everything was OK. I have gone some years with not raking leaves because they somehow mysteriously leave my yard and end up in the neighbours'. Otherwise, they end up in my compost piles that I've hardly ever harvested, but when I do the smell of the leaf mold and the dark rich colour of the newly minted dirt is beyond wonderful.

  4. Pam: one needs to ask to what extent tradition is to alienate the unwilling nonconformist yard tender.

    John: giving money away, to have it sucked out of the local community, and giving leaves away to have bio-mass sucked off of our small plots of land seem very parallel to me.