Faraway Farm: Leaf it be?

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We have a massive oak tree, along with all kinds of other trees like maples, crabapple, and ash trees. We also have about an acre of lawn. Come autumn, we are faced with a pretty big leaf removal job, and I'm always looking for alternatives. For many years, we've done a combination of mowing and raking. I would go over the leaves with the mower several times, chopping the leaves into smaller bits and leaving them to biodegrade into the soil. My significant other would rake or use the leaf blower to pile a lot of them up in a sort of no man's land between the house and the road. This past summer she began to take an interest in dealing with that area and had the young man up the road come down and clean the area of weeds and brush. Last year I purchased a pull behind leaf rake for the lawn tractor. I used that, and we also raked the leaves into a big tarp and dragged them down behind a neighbors garage where he allowed us to dump them. This year was a hybrid of that scenario.

I got the pull-behind hooked up and moving while the significant other and her oldest daughter began raking and hauling leaves down behind my neighbors garage. Part way through the job, I noticed the neighbors on our north side pulling our tarp full of leaves up to their place and dumping them in a big compost pile. Great! A few minutes later another neighbor down the road came zooming by pulling a huge tarp full of leaves, headed for our neighbors on the north side. All of this activity made the job fly by and it was finished in record time. My lawn looks great, and we don't have to think about all those leaves again. So what about the neighbor to the north?

When the family purchased the "north property" I was asked if we had any problem with them not mowing their lawn. No problem for us. They did mow parts of it, so their children had some play areas, but it was clear that my neighbors were utilizing their land in more useful ways than a lot of folks. It reminded me of a plant biology course I took at Dartmouth back in the 1970s. One article in the required reading was about vegetable gardens in Central America. Corn and other crops were planted in what appeared to be a completely random manner. Some corn here, some beans there, some places had everything intermingled. The result was a garden that had healthy plants that were more resistant to insects and various diseases. Native pollinating bees suddenly had a habitat close to flowering plants. It also served to eliminate the need for any pesticides. In the case of the neighbors land, grasses are allowed to grow tall which creates a much more diverse area that supports more life per square foot. (Don't forget those all-important bees.) Habitat is created for a more diverse number of creatures. Before you know it, the land around your home is teeming with life and the soil gets better with each passing year.

I'm glad that our leaves are helping to support that kind of diversity, but I'm sure it is much more than that. If you take into account, all of the millions of acres of lawn in this country it makes you wonder what the hell we're doing keeping all that area trimmed down and growing nothing of any significant value. We're using a lot of gasoline to keep it that way, as well. That in turn adds to air pollution, and we all know the results of that fine mess. When you begin to think about it, lawns are an aesthetic creation and a social construct. The statement is "look at us, we're responsible citizens who keep our property looking good, and we are productive members of society." While this has been the norm for decades, it hasn't always been that way, and it most likely doesn't need to stay the way that it is.

I'm not saying that we'll be seeing a movement sweeping across our nation where people manage their lawns as a land resource instead of a decoration. I think lawns have become too deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. However, I'm willing to bet that we'll see more people desiring an environmentally friendly management of their properties. An untended lawn has meant that the homeowner was negligent in the care of their property. That notion will have to be rethought in many cases because the deliberate growth of tall grasses is a completely different animal. I think you start by understanding that people are going to use their acreage in better ways in the future. It certainly has gotten me thinking about how to manage my acre of lawn. Right now it looks like I'm growing a crop of cars, trucks, boats and other stuff. Maybe a quarter acre of fruit trees and tall grasses would be a lot more practical. It would also cut down on mowing and leaf raking. Maybe we should plant some trees and "leaf" it alone.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.


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