I got a kick out of walking the neighborhood late Halloween afternoon, just ahead of the trick-or-treaters, and comparing the state of leaves from yard to yard.
I came upon one man who had parted the leaves like the Red Sea in front of the costumed children: The leaves had been banished to two small squares of lawn near the street, separated by the sidewalk. They covered the grass except for a border of bright green blades around the sides, which told me that this was a new lawn.
The sunny day was perfect, the air still, and the leaves obeyed their master. He told me he intended to vacuum them up the next day so that the grass wouldn't be smothered. And then deposit the bags of leaves on the curb.
I next saw a woman who was scooping up leaves with two big plastic paddles that looked like cymbals and depositing them into a leaf-bag holder. She was in good humor about it, even though the yard was large, the leaves were many, and the trees still held a heavy harvest. Her bags of leaves also were destined for the curb.
Some people were leaving the little ghouls to fend for themselves: A section in front of one house was ankle-deep in crispy, mousy-brown leaves. It was one of the scarier things I ran into on Halloween.
The next day was another in a succession of ideal days we've had, and I planted myself outside in the sun to read and enjoy some peace and quiet at a friend's house. But the neighbor ran a leaf vacuum for what seemed like hours on end. I hoped
she had earplugs in; I certainly wished I had them.
I later talked on the phone to my elderly dad, who bemoaned dragging heavy bags of leaves to the curb. I tried to suggest that he have the lawn man mow them on the lawn, but Dad insisted that he'd tried this himself and it didn't work. For one thing, he doesn't like the look of shredded leaves on the lawn. For another, he'd waited until the leaves were too thick before mowing. Of course it didn't work.
All these examples and a growing realization that nature provides its own solutions to our "problems" have made me appreciate less-painful, money-saving, environmentally friendly ways of dealing with leaves.
And I assert: We need never rake again.
Think about it: The leaves fall in the fall, and they break down during the rest of the year, becoming fertilizer, until it's time for them to fall again. Why do we fight them so?
"Research has proven that mowing leaves into your lawn can improve its vigor, and observation shows that unraked leaves in planting beds don't smother shade-tolerant perennials," Terry Ettinger writes for Fine Gardening.
Here are some options:
* Mow the lawn while you can still see the grass under the leaves. The leaves will shred and break down over the winter, providing fertilizer. Ettinger recommends setting the mower at a 3-inch height and mowing at least once a week during peak leaf fall when the lawn reaches a height of 4 inches (for fescue). "Leaves shred most efficiently when slightly damp, so mow after a light dew. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will never rake another leaf and improve the quality of your soil."
Sounds easier than raking to me. And, look, Mom: no garbage bags.
* Let fallen leaves prepare a garden bed in shady areas where grass doesn't grow. Ettinger said he created planting beds where the leaves naturally collected on his shady property. "It's been 15 years since I've raked a single leaf dropped by these trees," Ettinger says. "Instead, the leaves settle among the hellebores, epimediums, Japanese forest grass, hostas and spring-flowering bulbs, where they decompose over time, just like on the forest floor."
* Rake or blow — or let blow — the leaves into areas where you want to kill off weeds or grass. Put layers of newspaper on the ground first to get even faster, better results.
* Shred leaves either with a vacuum/shredder or the mower and use them as mulch in flower beds and around trees and shrubs.
* Make compost. You can do that in a compost bin, or see the accompanying box for a couple of different ways of composting directly in the spots where you plan to plant.
Of course there are always a few people — I'm surprised they don't do it in secret, at night — who blow or rake their leaves into the street. Plenty of leaves make their way there on their own, but adding to them is against city code. That's because those nutrients that are good for the soil when leaves decompose — phosphorous and nitrogen — are bad when they wash into streams and rivers, Ettinger writes.
"These excess nutrients contribute to algae blooms during the summer, which result in lower oxygen levels, making it difficult for fish and other aquatic species to survive."
The next time I took a walk in my neighborhood I saw the woman who had been scooping up leaves with the paddles back at it again.
"Aren't you sore?" I asked, thinking of my own bad back.
"You take ibuprofen right away and then you don't swell up," she answered, smiling.
And the leaves kept falling.