Airborne assault Fall's fall: Trees launch their annual bombardment, and -- alas -- we're outnumbered.

November 25, 1995|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Kick 'em, cuss 'em, chop 'em, torch 'em, blow 'em, rake 'em.

Whatever the strategy, Marylanders once again are taking up arms in the annual -- even primordial -- battle against an unremitting foe. Put simply: Man vs. Leaf.

And boy, are we outnumbered, man and woman alike. It's nothing for a healthy white oak or red maple tree, 50 to 100 feet tall, to grow -- and then shed -- 10,000 leaves, says Jeff Horan, regional forester for the state Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

If you live on an acre with 40 trees, Mr. Horan says, "you could have half a million leaves out there."

But this fall, the airborne commandos were slow to attack. "This is the latest I can ever remember trees dropping their leaves," says Mr. Horan, a 38-year-old Maryland native.

Trees were so dry after the summer drought, he theorizes, that they greedily drank the warm rains of September and October and sent moisture to parched leaves, delaying their inevitable death and descent.

That merely postponed the annual leaf blitzkrieg across the Maryland landscape. And for the past month, valiant foot soldiers have fought back.

Harold Spencer waged war yesterday at his home on Nicodemus Road near Reisterstown. He retired two weeks ago as an electrical engineer at AT&T Corp. Leaves fell upon him like confetti on V-E Day.

"I grew up in New York City. I didn't even see a tree until I was 8," says Mr. Spencer, 59. "Now I estimate I move about eight tons of leaves a year."

He has lived on his 1.1-acre lot for 17 years. He once counted 40 trees in his front yard alone. His back yard leads into woods.

As a raw recruit, he attacked with only a rake, a tarpaulin and two daughters. "But the kids grew up, moved out and left me with the leaves," he says.

Now, after nearly two decades in the trenches, Mr. Spencer is a wily veteran -- and heavily armed.

He assaults leaves with a push blower, which resembles a lawnmower, and blows them into columns. Then he fits an attachment onto the blower, transforming it into a vacuum and shredder. This machine sucks up leaves, shreds them and spits them into a bag.

Mr. Spencer empties the shredded leaves onto a tarpaulin, shovels them into a cart attached to a riding lawn mower and hauls the cart into the woods, where he dumps the leaves.

"And I do this over and over and over and over and over," he says.

Leaves aren't the only formidable autumn foe. Gregory Dash, 48, a lineman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., stands outside his Carroll County home and shakes his head.

"It makes me sick to look at it," he says, gazing upon his 1991 Pontiac Grand Am.

His gray car's hood, top and trunk are pockmarked with at least 100 dents from kamikaze acorns.

Mr. Dash is powerless to prevent it. There's no place to park on his wooded, quarter-acre lot between Sykesville and Taylorsville that's not in range of the towering oaks.

The trees usually don't unleash such a large-scale bombardment. But the past two years they have produced bumper crops of acorns. Mr. Dash sees no reason now to have his car repaired.

Says his 23-year-old son, Scott: "It's going to cost a lot of money to fix. Then it's going to happen all over again."

There's no lack of weaponry for the battle against leaves: blowers, vacuums, chipper-vacuums, chipper-shredders -- even rakes.

Spend $1,000 for a Little Wonder leaf blower "with hurricane winds," the ad says. Or, for $14.95, buy a curiously shaped Snake Rake -- "It bends so you don't have to."

If you're a professional, you might own a vehicle the size of a dump truck that tows a 6-foot-long vacuum with a 30-horsepower engine that could suck up Iwo Jima.

But the vacuums owned by the Brickman Group, a national landscape contracting firm that is ever-present around Columbia, suck up only leaves -- with little fanfare.

"It's just part of business," says Brad Johns, who runs the company's Howard County office. "We all just take it in stride."

And when the leaves are all sucked up, workers take them to centers for recycling into mulch.

That's where most raked or vacuumed leaves end up these days. Landfills no longer accept pure yard waste. You can't burn leaves inside the Baltimore Beltway, and in the counties just outside the Beltway you can burn them only with a permit.

But no matter how you choose to dispose of leaves, you know you've got a fight on your hands.

Judi von Mehlem, an "over 50" engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, hauls bag after bag to the curb at her home in Columbia. She has lived on a third of an acre on tree-studded Good Lion Road for 16 years.

"When we first moved in, I got frustrated and counted the bags," she says. "There were 175 of them."

Ms. von Mehlem's arsenal now features a push vacuum-chipper and a push mulcher, not to mention a hand-held blower and the traditional rake and tarpaulin. She says she wages war one day each weekend from mid-October until about Thanksgiving.

For information about what to do with leaves, call: In Baltimore, 396-4515; Anne Arundel County, 222-6103; Baltimore County, 887-2000; Carroll County, 857-2035; Harford County, 638-3417; Howard County, 313-6444.

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