Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 29, 2012

Eureka — no raking

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — My eureka moment came one day early last fall during an afternoon puttering around in the yard.

Out front, where the two oaks shading the sidewalk have grown from saplings when we moved in to mature trees, the leaves fall in an almost continual shower all through the long autumn. In previous years, after putting off the inevitable for as long as possible, I had dragged out a rake (and sometimes my children, when I caught them unawares) and swept the leaves into giant black plastic bags.

Not again, I thought, with a gloomy look up into the rustling branches.  There's only one good reason to rake leaves — to get them off the grass, obviously — and a bunch of bad ones.

It’s too much work for a naturally lazy guy like me, for one, too much unnecessary garbage occupying limited landfill space, for another: a 39-gallon plastic leaf bag takes up more than 6 cubic feet of space, according to a volume conversion table I found online. And a box of 40 of those bags will set you back about $12, and that’s for the generic ones.

Don’t think you won’t need that many either, because you’ll end up going back to the store for more. There were weekends I put six or more bags out with the trash, and my yard isn’t that big.

Every bag of leaves represents valuable nutrients sucked out of the soil, and it seems a shame to seal them in impermeable plastic and toss them out with the rest of the rubbish.

One more thing. Trees. They grow. Every year my oaks are taller, with more branches thrusting out and more leaves sprouting on every new twig. That means every year more leaves fall and the weekly carpet on the yard gets thicker.

I put the rake away, started up the mower and attacked the lawn. After a couple of passes it was clear that the mower was grinding the leaves into tiny shreds that all but disappeared into the grass.

When I was finished, the yard was almost leaf free and not a single plastic bag was used.

Now I’m pretty casual about yardwork; the grass gets shaggy at times and the shrubbery pretty much fends for itself. So as long as the leaves more or less disappear, that's good enough for me.

But most readers are smart enough not to take my word for it. With that in mind, I found a local lawn guru, namely Boyd County horticulture extension agent Lori Bowling, who said mowing the leaves is just fine for most lawns. The fragmented leaves decompose and return organic matter to the soil, enhancing its ability to hold nutrients.

Her one caveat was that if a tree was diseased — she used the example of a dogwood with powdery mildew  — the leaves should be raked lest they return pathogens to the soil around the tree and reinfect it.

She also recommended a soil test, which is easy and available free for county residents through the extension service. The test reveals if the soil needs nutrients. Non-residents can get the test materials for a few bucks.

Some homeowners rake or blow their leaves to the curb, a practice that is discouraged in Ironton, where I live. It’s also messy, especially if you park on the street, because by early winter you will be stepping out of your car into a soupy glop of decaying leaves and rainwater, filmed with a rainbow of hydrocarbons sluiced from the pavement.

Raking to the curb is prohibited in Ashland, but the city does accommodate rakers by sending a separate truck out to collect bagged leaves, according to solid waste supervisor Jim Wheeler. Wheeler said the truck would be on the route anyway but I can’t help thinking the city would save money if it didn’t have to pick up the leaves separately.

Last year I didn’t use a single bag for leaves and the lawn came up just fine in the spring. I haven’t used any this fall either. The environmental issues of lessening consumption of plastic and landfill space are important to me. You may not give a hoot and that’s your business. But you will save time, effort and money. I bet you give a hoot about that.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.