A raker's progress: Falling for 'Vrroooom'

October 25, 1997|By Rob Kasper

FALLING LEAVES are like house guests. Initially, you're happy to see them, but the longer they hang around, the more they irritate you. If they stay around long enough, you'll go to war with them.

The first time each fall I rake leaves, I am in a good mood. The aromas, the raking and the leaf-gathering routine remind me of the rhythms of life and of the fact that I hail from a long line of leaf rakers. I remember one of my first steps on the road to responsibility came when my dad entrusted me with tending the small, leaf-consuming fire that he had started.

Now I know that leaf-burning -- a practice banned in most metropolitan Baltimore communities -- also scorches a hole in the Earth's ozone. Back when I burned leaves, I didn't feel like an environmental criminal. No, with a fire-poking stick and a garden hose at my side, I felt like someone important, a keeper of the flame.

This lofty feeling didn't last. After half an hour I was ready to ditch this job, snuff out the fire, and revert to my normal status as a lad of leisure.

This temptation to run away from leaf-raking responsibility still runs strong. For instance, by the second time I rake leaves in a season, the thrill is gone. I feel more dutiful than enthusiastic. I begin to question my leaf-raking techniques. Is it more efficient, I wonder, to rake the leaves into parallel rows or to form them into big piles?

The big piles tend to attract leaf-stompers, also known as kids. During the early parts of the leaf-raking season I regard the frolics of the stompers as autumnal amusements. I even assist them, providing a football and commentary to the kid who throws himself in a forgiving pile. "He leaps into the end zone and scores!"

But later in the season, my tolerance for such diversions has faded. The kids still want to play in the leaves but I want them only to labor in the leaves, stomping them into more compact and disposable forms.

The third time that I rake the yard, I do it when the kids aren't around. I also start getting resentful. I find myself saying, "I spent months watering and feeding these trees and this is how they thank me -- by making a mess in the yard."

Talking to trees is a sure sign you are suffering from leaf-raking stress syndrome. Another sign is when you find yourself playing leaf detective. This happens when you notice that the leaves you are raking aren't the same color as the ones that come from the trees in your yard. Upon further investigation, you determine the suspect leaves came from your neighbor's trees. The wind blew them into your yard. Or so it seems.

Many victims of leaf-raking stress syndrome seek relief by turning to machinery. There are many machines on the market -- blowers, choppers, mowers, mulchers -- that both make a lot of noise and let the leaves know who is in charge. I have heard stories telling that when unruly leaves have met such a machine, the rebellious became meek; the restless, calm.

In some leafy locales the roar of this autumnal artillery can be deafening. I fight on a quieter front. I am a mere infantryman in the great leaf wars. I engage in hand-to-hand combat using only a rake and a snow shovel to bring my backyard leaves into submission. I have no leaf-battling weapon that goes "Vrrooom." I lust for such a weapon but haven't been able to justify it. The back-yard of our rowhouse is tiny and holds only three small trees. Buying a big, noisy machine to battle with leaves from a couple of dogwoods seems like overkill.

But the situation may change. Instead of bagging my leaves, I am thinking about turning them into compost. I have been reading the propaganda, pondering the pros and cons of becoming a composter, a guy who wears big boots and talks knowingly about the way things rot.

A compost pile is not especially scenic, so you have to find a spot where you can hide it. A compost pile does yield hearty food for your soil, but it takes its time doing it. You are not talking about instant gratification for your garden. Instead, you are talking about waiting 6 months to 12 months before you harvest the compost. Patience seems to be especially important if you put maple leaves in your pile. Then you have to wait about a year, until the growth-stunting chemicals in the maple leaves, called phenols, dissipate.

Finally, to speed the rotting process, you have to make sure you have the right mixture of "browns" (leaves, straw, wood chips, sawdust) and "greens" (grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds) in your compost pile.

Overall, making a compost pile sounds like something best taken on by folks who have more land and time than I do.

However, there is one factor that makes the practice very attractive to me. Namely, that to make good compost you have got to chop some leaves. Chopped leaves decay much faster than whole leaves. So it seems to me, that in order to start a compost pile, I have to get a leaf-mulcher, a machine that goes "Vrroom."

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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