By Christopher B. Daly
Ah, another late-fall day here in New England. Full of watching the winter juncoes arrive, harvesting the last root vegetables, and listening to the roar of the leaf-blower. Sure enough, where I live just outside Boston, Monday mornings in fall bring an invading army of landscapers. Just after most of my neighbors have started their commute to work, those of us who work at home bear the brunt of the commercial landscapers’ day-long assault.
I am not advocating a radical, tear-up-your-lawn, no-mow approach (although there’s no harm in that, either.) Nor am I advocating a ban on lawn mowers and a return to hand-powered mowers (although there too, I think we could do a lot better).
I am calling for a deep reconsideration of a practice that has become de rigueur here in the suburbs, but which our ancestors would have considered demented. That is the compulsion to remove every fallen leaf from our lawns, driveways, and walks.
According to an article in the New York Times, there is a growing trend (is there any other kind?) toward re-thinking the assumption that all leaves must be whisked “away” to somewhere else. As an ecologist could tell you, there is no such place as “away.” Everything goes somewhere.
Let’s consider the leaf.
A leaf is part of a plant that allows it to live by conducting photosynthesis, converting sunlight into energy, which fuels the plant. In doing so, plants take in carbon dioxide through their leaves and emit oxygen. In this way, leaves do an enormous amount of good for the planet and for each one of us — also known as “ecosystem services.”
So far, so good.
In this part of the world, though, most plants drop their leaves in the fall to prepare for the rigors of a snowy, icy winter in which there may be no liquid water available for many months. The leaves fall to the ground, where they form “leaf litter,” a mat of leaves that — if left alone — would eventually decompose and join the soil, enriching it with organic material. The leaf litter is the plant’s attempt to shape the environment in its favor, as for example, when a pine tree drops some of its needles to form a dense, acidic mat below that discourages other plants but favors more pine trees. (I suspect that almost every plant harbors a secret plan to take over the world.)
This is what brings some plants into conflict with some humans. The conflict is particularly acute between the deciduous trees (like oaks and maples) and the suburban homeowner. Suburban homeowners are, by definition, also suburban landowners, so they are involved whether like it or not in land-use policy.
Overwhelmingly, suburban landowners are putting their land to use in the same way: growing grass for lawns. They are, in other words, farmers who grow a single crop, which is to say that they are involved in “mono-culture.” Oddly, suburbanites devote a lot of time and money to raising that one crop, only to cart it away and pay to dispose of it. They do not eat it, and they do not feed it to any livestock (rabbits do not count).
Part of the expense in maintaining a grassy lawn is the cost of protecting that lawn from the leaf litter. If all the trees in all the yards in an area like the one where I live in New England were allowed to drop their leaves undisturbed, our yards would soon begin to look like the forest floor rather than a grassy lawn. The leaves in the leaf litter layer would overlap and smother most grasses.
Hence, the great fall mania for leaf clean-up.
Originally, most Europeans who settled in this part of the world did not bother with a lawn. They sensibly built their houses close to the road, leaving just enough room for a front garden. In back, most people would have had a barnyard — a patch of hard-packed dirt between the house and the barn. Most of the rest of the land would be fields and orchards or it would be left more or less wild as a living resource for harvesting wood and foraging all kinds of useful things. Those ancestral New Englanders had real outdoor chores demanding their time and strength, and they could not possibly have squandered any time raking leaves just for the hell of it.
In the 19th century, the lawn made its debut, and in the 20th century, the lawn conquered millions of acres of U.S. land.
At mid-century, when I was a child, most suburbanites handled their own yard care. In my neighborhood in Medford, Mass., I can recall only one family that hired a landscape service, and they were the wealthiest folks around. Everyone else just got out there and took care of their yards, or else they hired a teenager to do it for them. People like my father waited until the trees had dropped nearly all their leaves, then he started raking at the point farthest from the street. He raked the leaves into a long mound at the edge of the street. Then he did what everyone else did: he took some matches out of his pocket (where he kept them because he was a smoker) and set the leaves on fire.
For a child, this was one of the great rituals of the year, a communal festival of sorts, with great sounds and smells and the infinitely absorbing allure of an open fire. As children, we tended those leaf fires, blowing on them, feeding them with dry leaves, trying to build the biggest fire the adults would tolerate. Yes, there was some danger involved, I suppose, but at that stage in our national evolution, children were expected to learn to handle risk, not to avoid it. If the tail of your jacket happened to get burned while you were squatting to blow on some nearby embers, that was a lesson learned.
Sometime in the 1970s or 80s, under the banner of the environmentalist goal of clean air, every town I know of in New England banned the practice of open burning of leaves. (Yes, the air is cleaner, but, of course, something was lost in the process, too, and that needs to be acknowledged.)
Which brings us to the present. Nowadays, a dwindling number of suburban homeowners continue to do their own gardening and yard work. More and more, my neighbors summon commercial landscapers (and not the kid down the block, who is too busy anyway). This brings us an odd sight: like soldiers before battle, the landscape workers, who are engaged in a supposedly healthful form of outdoor exercise, first gear up with headphones, surgical masks, and sunglasses. After all, they know better than anyone just how obnoxious the portable, gas-powered leaf-blower is, and they want to protect their ears, their lungs, and their eyes.
They need protection, too. The average leaf-blower emits up to 70 or more decibels of noise along with some amount of smoke from its unmuffled, two-stroke, gas-fueled motor. But that decibel rating is a figure for a single well-maintained blower. The ones I experience are often old and banged up, and the guys who use them often gang together forming sonic artillery three to four abreast. Motors roaring, they wave their tubes from side to side, like a sci-fi elephant.
If it’s wet, they just redouble their efforts, roaring longer and louder to try to move those wet leaves from here to there. If it’s dry, watch out. Blasting away with their jets of air leaving the nozzle at nearly 200 mph, the leaf-blowers move more than leaves. They also pulverize and aerosolize pretty much every other small thing on the ground: bird shit, mouse dung, mold, cigarette butts, dust, allergens, pollen, weed seeds — it all swirls together in a choking, irritating mini-cyclone of detritus. And, oh yes — if your landscaper sold you an application of a herbicide or pesticide, then some of those poisons are going up in the toxic swirl, too. No wonder the guys on the crew try to protect themselves.
Usually, they blow the leaves onto a huge tarp, which they haul to the street. Then, they use a giant vacuum cleaner to lift the leaf pile into the back of their truck. What happens next is another ecological crime.
They haul all the leaves away. In other words, they deplete the yard of a significant amount of organic material that would otherwise rot and recycle into the soil. So, the removal of the leaves seriously depletes the land of its natural fertility. This is clearly a demented activity. Why do homeowners let the landscapers pilfer this valuable material?
Then comes the kicker: the landscapers will be back in the spring to sell the homeowner a treatment with . . . artificial fertilizer! This is to compensate for loss of the free, natural fertilizer that the yard would enjoy if the leaves were left in place. This is the equivalent of a burglar selling you your own stuff back!
To make matters worse, the removal of all those leaves means that the landscaped yard has no leaf litter. That is, there is no part of the yard in which certain organisms can winter over and carry on their lives. Many beneficial insects depend on the leaf litter for food and shelter. Without it, the yard is nearly barren, featuring only the useless lawn. And of course, no bugs means no birds (unless the suburbanite also hangs a bird-feeder — another unnatural act; don’t get me started on that one!) as well as no toads or all kinds of other creatures that were here before us.
All in all, the landscaped suburban lawn is pretty much an ecological disaster. Too often, it is a wasteland of clipped grass and exotic ornamental shrubs, shaded by a couple of non-native trees like Norway maples. This is a high-maintenance, expensive, inefficient approach that alienates the homeowner from nature, exposes the landscaping crew and the neighbors to noise and air pollution, and impoverishes our landscape.
We can do better.
[In another post, I will try to suggest some ideas for bringing some ecological sanity to the suburbs. Meanwhile, get a rake and a broom.]