Leave the leaves for the gardener to gather up

November 09, 2003|By Susan Reimer

"Save the leaves," I said to my husband on a recent Saturday morning.

He looked up from the kitchen table and his newspaper, confused.

"Save the leaves?" he asked, and I could tell by the way he put the question that he was trying to find out if I meant "save the leaves" as in "save the whales," or something else entirely.

I meant something else entirely.

"I want you to save all the leaves for me this fall," I continued. "I'm going to need them."

It was a request a little out of the ordinary, I knew. A far cry from "pick up the dry-cleaning" or "bring a roll of paper towels upstairs." And it was going to take some explaining before it was granted.

"I ran out last year," I said, shrugging.

I am a big believer, as only recent converts can be, in the power of leaves as instant compost and winter mulch in the garden. But they are no good to me until they have been chewed up into bite-sized pieces by the lawn mower.

The leaves come out of the mower bag looking like a kind of crazy salad: all the yellows, reds and browns are chopped small and mixed with a little grass. Spread over the garden, left half-naked by the fall clean-up, the mixture looks like Grandma's old quilt.

These "processed" leaves are halfway to decomposition and will be an indistinguishable part of the soil by spring. Left whole and matted together by rain, leaves can make a kind of lean-to for insects or a hothouse for disease.

Besides, leaving leaves on the garden looks sloppy.

I have the perfect partner for my leaf madness.

My husband is so fastidious about his grass that he not only rakes the first and last leaves of fall, he is often out there catching them as they tumble down.

And he is patient as a saint as he carefully removes the leaves that clot my gardens and get tangled in the fading plants. He puts his leaf-blower in reverse and gently extracts them, like a dental assistant cleaning up after a filling.

Bagging leaves, or whooshing them into the street for the trucks to come and suck up, seems a terrible waste to me. Raking leaves may be a Rockwellian tradition in some families, but I like mine chopped.

And my husband never objects to any project that requires the purchase of a new piece of equipment, and a mulching lawnmower certainly satisfied that urge for something shiny, new and gasoline-powered.

Not as satisfying as the purchase of a power washer might be, he said, pointedly.

"I'm not looking for clean leaves," I said over my shoulder as I headed outside to spread the latest batch of chopped leaves.

As part of the bargain, I offer up all my garbage cans, my recycling bins, the fallow portions of my vegetable garden - even my Tupperware collection - to hold the leaves until I can carefully spread them where I want them.

"You just don't toss this stuff around," I said.

My neighbor, Bob the gardener, stands in the street that runs between our houses, his arms folded across his chest, and shakes his head. He taught me everything I know about gardening, but my interpretation of his teachings often baffles him.

"Let me get this straight," he says. "You are picking up all these leaves so you can put them back down again."

"They are good for the garden," I said.

"I know that," he shouts with good-natured impatience. "I told you that. Why don't you just leave them on the garden?"

How like a man, I think. They feel the same way about socks on the floor and dishes in the sink.

Recently, Bob the gardener has approached us about the joint-purchase of some kind of gas-powered mulching machine. Something with which brush, sticks, small branches - and leaves - can be ground to the consistency of corn flakes.

The men appear to be enthusiastic about this shiny new machine, so I bide my time and smile.

"I don't care what you buy," I tell them, "as long as I get the leaves."

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