Mary Robson is an odd kind of bag lady. To her colleagues at the Cooperative Extension Service in Seattle she is known as a horticulturist. But her neighbors know her better as the woman who begs for their yard waste during leaf season. One year, they unloaded 87 bags of leaves on her. She was ecstatic.
Most of us glare bitterly at the leaves swirling around our feet. Mary Robson revels in them. Why? She hesitates to tell people for fear they'll be scouring the alleys ahead of the yard waste truck, too.
"What other people see as trash that happens in the fall, I see as gifts from above," says Robson. "The leaves are the trees' works. They are precious soil amendments that just drop down from the sky -- free for the cost of gathering them up."
Here is what Robson does with these gifts from above.
First, she rakes the smaller leaves from her lawn straight onto her flower beds, where they'll shade out winter weeds and insulate the soil. She's careful not to snuggle them too tightly around perennial crowns and shrub roots.
The trees on her small property -- Japanese maple and ash -- have small leaves. Really big leaves, she cautions, such as large-leafed maples and chestnuts need to be shredded for flower beds.
Robson dumps large leaves into her home compost pile in layers four inches deep. She throws in a layer of green from spent summer plants to keep the green/brown ratio more or less on target.
If she has any leaves left, Robson just rakes them into a pile in a corner of the yard, where they decompose over the course of the winter. In the spring, she digs them into her flower beds and vegetable garden.
So what did she do with the 87 black plastic bags of damp leaves she scavenged from her neighbors? She threw as many as would fit under the deck. Some went under the crawl space, a number ended up heaped along a fence. And there they sat, looking like trash to the untrained eye, for five or six months.
When Robson opened the bags in the spring she uncovered the stuff that makes gardeners' knees weak and their eyes mist over: leaf mold. Just mention leaf mold within earshot of your plants and they'll all perk up. Dig it into the soil around them and they'll sit up and sing. Or add it to summer grass clippings for world-class compost.
Not all leaves should be used in your garden, Robson is sad to say. If your apple tree has scab, or your cherry has brown rot, you'll want to rake and bag these leaves separately. Try not to rake them from one side of the yard over to the other. (This careful handling and removal is what plant experts mean by that dreadful phrase "plant sanitation.")
Don't dump these bags into your own compost. Set them out for yard waste pickup. The high temperatures reached in large-scale municipal composting heaps will kill any fungi or bacteria you send them.
If you use municipal yard waste pickup, buy a stash of jumbo brown paper bags. The bags will decompose in the composting process, and not merely shred as plastic bags will. The bags are available in some garden and hardware stores. If you can't find them in your town, try Seventh Generation, a mail-order outfit in Vermont, at (800) 456-1177.
So next time a gust of wind sends leaves swirling onto your lawn, if you can't use them yourself, rake them up, bag them, and hope some starry-eyed leaf lover like Mary Robson visits your alley that night.