Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rustling Leaves

That's one of the "hats" I wear during this season: leaf rustler.

On beautiful sunny Indian Summer Sunday afternoons, people all over town rake leaves and put them in bags out by the curb. The city has a yard waste collection and composting program, so on Monday morning the trash trucks canvass the city picking up the leaf bags.

On Sunday evening, the leaf rustlers--I know I'm not the only one, I've scoped out a likely pile and found it gone before I can get back with the truck--do their work. Monday mornings are good, too, if you can beat the city trucks. So far I haven't been organized enough to try to actually research their routes, but I'm sure it would make me an even more effective leaf rustler.

My "new" ladder rack (acquired second hand a few months ago) is great for hauling leaves. When I let down the side panels that I installed for hauling sheep, I can stack the bags higher than the cab and still not worry about losing them. Leaving a trail is the sign of an incompetent (and criminal) leaf rustler.

Why collect leaves? They are one of the main sources of organic matter and mulch on my farm. They are especially good for "germination mulches" for small-seeded crops like carrots and greens, because they are light and shade the soil well. They also nestle down in between small seedling nicely...I can sprinkle them over the top of a bed, and they'll work their way down. It's also easy to mulch around individual plants in densely planted beds, such as garlic or onion.

I also use leaves as bedding for the chicken coop, and as a short-term solution to particularly muddy chicken yard conditions. Chickens love to scratch around in a pile of leaves! They will shred them in nothing flat.

In recent years, the city has mandated that only leaves in compostable paper bags (or trash cans) will be picked up. There are always a few folks who don't realize this and bag in plastic anyhow. I especially treasure these black plastic bags of leaves. I place them in the bed lanes north of overwintering beds of green such as spinach, and they create a mild microclimate for the bed. They block the north wind, and the black plastic absorbs a fair bit of heat during the day. It's also possible to lay a panel of lexan over them to create an informal cold frame environment. Then in the spring, when the protection is no longer needed, the bags of leaves are right there ready to mulch the bed.

My stockpile of leaves for next season will also provide some insulation along the north side of the barn this winter. I've erected a cattle panel about 6' north of the barn, parallel to the wall, to form a leaf bin. Much better than previous years where I've just pitched them out the side of the truck into one of the fallow garden blocks...then ended up with a lingering mess of torn and decomposing bags to clean up in the spring before I can plant those beds.

I try to empty out the paper leaf bags into the bin as I haul them home, and neatly refold the bags. I give the bags to folks that don't have a lot of money to spend on expensive leaf bags...especially those who'll let me know when and where they've just raked a yard full of leaves. One leaf rustling partner is a homeless man who's just started a yard raking service. Riding the bus back downtown after his first job, he mentioned to me that he'd just found out about the paper bag requirement AFTER bagging the entire job in he was going to go back and rebag them the next day. I was happy to save him the effort. I'll be taking him the paper bags from tonight's haul...30 good ones, and 2 with only small holes from sticks.

I happen to attend a meeting every Sunday night on the far side of town, so on my way home I drive through the best leaf-rustling neighborhoods, where I know I'm mostly likely find good leaves conveniently placed....

Hah! You thought leaves were leaves, not much to it!

I don't want leaves that were picked up with a lawn mower--you never know what lawn chemicals have been used.

I don't want leaves from yards with dogs--dog poop is yucky--or yew hedges--yew clippings are toxic to livestock.

Some trees make better leaves than others--sycamore (especially), catalpa, and cottonwood leaves are so big they are annoying for mulching small plants. Oak leaves don't crumble very well so they can blow a lot, but they break down slowly. Elm, maple and ash are my favorites because they crumble nicely, pack down, and decompose well.

Some include too many annoying seeds or pods, like sweet gum or sycamore balls, catalpa pods, etc. Redbud leaves are great in many ways, but then I end up with so many baby redbud trees in the garden, and it always bothers me to kill them because redbuds are pretty much my favorite tree, but I have to kill them because there are just so many..... Elm, ash, and maple, on the other hand, inflict their seeds on the community early in the year, so there generally aren't many mixed in with the leaves.

I look for groups of bags that are placed near the curb in neighborhoods where the houses aren't too close to the street...I don't want to make folks nervous that I'm right up near their house. And I never go more than a few feet into someone's yard. That tempting pile of bags behind a tree near the house might be reserved for someone else. I only want unwanted leaves.

Quiet, well-lighted side streets with plenty of vacant curbside parking are good. I don't want my truck to be rear-ended, but I like to turn the lights off so as not to disturb neighbors. I always try to park legally and politely.

Unfenced yards are good--I'm less likely to disturb a dog who will drive me or its owners crazy.

Ritzy neighborhoods are more likely to have lawn services come rake; the companies usually haul off the leaves themselves. So even though yards are big and promptly raked, there may not be many leaf bags to rustle.

What about my own leaves, the leaves from all the trees at the farm? It depends.

The sheep vacuum up a lot of the leaves in the areas they graze. They love fall leaves!

The front yard is increasingly dominated by a sycamore that grew from a seed about eight years ago. So one last lawn mowing mulches up the huge (up to 14" across, I kid you not!) tough leaves and they enrich the soil in the yard. Today, a friend looking for exercise came by while I was gone and worked this wonderful transformation in my absence...a relief (releaf?) to have that off my "to-do" list, though I would have enjoyed the task whenever I'd found the time.

So about the only raking I do rake is the driveway and patio/porch area, where the leaves otherwise build up into messy drifts that later decompose into havens for next spring's onslaught of elm seedlings. And I generally wait until all the leaves have fallen (so I only have to do it once), and the ground is frozen, and it's too cold to do much else...which sometimes means I do the raking with a snow shovel.
But only because I don't have time. I like raking leaves. But usually, this time of year I'm too busy rustling others' leaves to rake my own.

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