Fallen leaves? Leave them to that little ol' harvester

THE REAL DIRT

November 02, 1991|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The summer vegetables pooped out weeks ago, and the flowers are fading fast. Alas, the bloom is off the roses and everything else in my yard.

The garden is kaput, but there is one last crop to gather.

Hand me a rake and a tarpaulin. It's time to harvest the leaves.

Harvest leaves, you say? Nonsense! Man hasn't eaten tree leaves for a million years. People don't harvest leaves, they rake them. And raking leaves is a chore, not a blessing.

Unless you're a gardener, that is.

The autumn leaves drift by my window, bringing hearty food for my hungry soil. The leaves are floating entrees of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, plus side orders of boron and cobalt. The 24-hour buffet will continue for months until my yard is gorged.

Having been taught never to waste food, I gather and store every leaf for the coming year.

Raking leaves is a pleasant enough task, until I reach that corner of the yard where our two dogs do their business. I tread lightly there, lest I step on a "land mine" hidden beneath the leaves. On several occasions, I have accidentally skewered something horrid on the end of the rake, and tried in vain to shake it off.

Our 9-year-old, Beth, thinks this is hilarious.

"What'samatter, Daddy?" she says. "Got some shish kepoop?"

Everyone has his own style of raking. I clear out one big circle at a time. I stand in one spot and turn until I have gathered all the leaves within a 360-degree arc. Turns out I've been doing it wrong. The federal government, which spends your tax dollars producing efficiency studies on a multitude of topics, suggests raking all your leaves in parallel rows, as though mowing the lawn, and then combining those leaf piles into larger piles.

Tired of raking? You may want to purchase a leaf blower, the latest fad in leaf removal. Then again, you may not. The leaf blower looks like a hair dryer for giraffes and comes in two models: noisy and useless. A gas-powered blower will push all your leaves into your neighbor's yard, along with any loose mulch and the family cat. But this type leaf blower sounds like a chain saw and has actually been banned in some neighborhoods.

The electric leaf blower is quieter, yet generally ineffective against leaves in piles of three or more. Prices start around $80. Frankly, rakes are cheaper and more efficient.

However, raking creates one problem: How do you dispose of the leaves? After the kids jump in them, of course.

I used to gather leaves from our two large maples, spread them on the vegetable patch and rototill them into the soil. Then, each spring, I wondered why the cabbage, broccoli and other early crops always failed.

The plants failed because, when maple leaves begin to decompose, they emit growth-inhibiting chemicals called phenols that greatly reduce initial crop yields. Moreover, decomposing leaves can stunt plant growth by tying up available nitrogen. (Plants don't draw food from leaves until the latter start to rot.)

Little did I know that I was killing my garden with kindness.

Now I know better. I chop the leaves each fall, running over small piles several times with the lawn mower to hasten their decay. The driveway is a good place to do this, although the lawn will do. A few shredded leaves left behind will not harm the grass.

Then I scoop up the leaves and place them on the compost heap in alternate layers with nitrogen-rich farm manures and cottonseed meal, to further hasten decomposition.

The leaves are quite accommodating. By midspring, they are well on their way to becoming rich leaf mold, which sells for nearly $2 per cubic foot at garden centers, if you can find it at all.

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