I set out on a walk last week from my friend Charlotte's house in Tallgrass, drinking in the beautiful weather and the friendliness of the people I met along the way.
One of them was a woman sweeping up leaves in the middle of the street. One of the nice aspects of a walk through a "no-outlet" community is a lack of traffic. This woman could bring her broom out into the middle of the street to sweep as carefreely as you or I do our front sidewalk.
The woman complimented the lovely weather, and I complimented her neatness.
"The people who cleaned up my yard yesterday blew the leaves into the street," she said, shaking her head. "Young people."
"They don't know," I said knowingly, though the only thing I really know is that apparently there is no age immune from the knowledge that you're not supposed to blow leaves into the street.
I see adults do it every fall, and I drive by, shaking my head and smirking in a passive-aggressive rebuke. Nobody benefits from such smugness, especially if they don't know what the heck you're frowning at them about.
The fact of the matter is, there is a city ordinance against blowing or sweeping yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, into the curb or the street. The reason is they can clog storm drains and pollute water. Last fall I saw a man rake leaves straight down the drain. Becky Lewis of the city's environmental health department witnessed something similar once. She was able to pull out a badge to go with her admonition not to do that.
"The tannins in the leaves get in there and make the river really dark," Becky told me. Then sunlight can't reach in, and that harms aquatic systems. In addition, any nutrients from fertilizers that are on grass or leaves can cause algae to grow in streams.
So does anybody ever get fined for doing this stuff?
"We do send out a little notice" when someone complains about seeing someone else breaking the ordinance, Becky said. "I think there's a potential fine up to $500 a day per violation, but we haven't ever" fined anybody, she said.
And it's not just individual people who are street-sweeping. Linda Riemann told me she saw a man from a professional company cleaning one of her neighbor's yards and blowing the leaves into the street.
"The street was covered with leaves," she said. "I thought if I witnessed it, there's got to be a lot of other people" who do, too.
I then came across Sue Wettstaed out in her College Hill garden, and she was preparing to mow the leaves in the street. She says that all of the leaves from the rest of the block blow down the street and park in front of her house. When it rains or snows, the leaves become a soupy mess, and when the temperature drops below freezing, they become a slick hazard.
"The city always cleans the streets, but it's always too late," Sue said.
So she thought she'd help herself and Mother Nature out by mowing the leaves into little crumbs, just as she does on her lawn, to avoid raking very much.
"It's this year's experiment," Sue said, shaking her head at all the years we used to rake up all the leaves.
It is interesting to think of what's happened to leaf-raking. The leaf blower has come on the scene, too loud for our taste, and mulch mowers — especially quiet models like Sue's electric — allow us to mulch the leaves directly on the grass, allowing them to break down into fertilizer without keeping water and sun from hitting the grass plants. (The largeness of leaves is what makes them not ideal to leave lolling about as mulch. They mat and act as a coverup against rain and light. If you can, rake them onto the lawn, mulch-mow them there, and then rake them back into flower beds after the ground has frozen. Or, of course, compost them.)
When you mulch-mow leaves, don't mow more than 3 inches' depth at a time. Dry leaves are easier to mow than wet ones, though a bit of moisture keeps dust down.
You may have noticed that the leaves are not as colorful this fall as they were last year. Such rare blazes of color don't often happen back to back. Extension agent Bob Neier says sugar maples, though, are particularly beautiful this year.
Sue looked up at the tall sycamore tree in her front yard and noted all the leaves against the blue sky that had not yet fallen. She's going to keep her lawnmower handy into the winter to keep on top of them.