OPINION COLUMNS

The life cycle of a leaf shouldn’t end in a bag

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, December 1, 2012

This is a time of year both glorious and depressing for leaf-lovers.

After months of green, they go gold and yellow, orange and red, set on fire by a symphony of forces involving shorter days, cooler temperatures, less chlorophyll, more sugar and things like anthocyanins, carotenoids and tannins.

Then they get that dreaded notice from the tree: “We’re going to have to let you go…” And one-by-one or in bunches, they turn loose and drift down.

We have lots of leaves at our house. Big oak trees all around us produce enough to fill the yard several feet deep, if the wind would let them.

Bob Buckel

It doesn’t. Those fronts that blow in from the Arctic or Alaska or Amarillo (places often indistinguishable) push them into piles against the house, deeper in corners, or send them skittering across pastures and lawns and roads.

At times I want to rake them all up and be done with it. A million are down already. Then I look up, and there are millions more still up there. Until the trees are bare, you’re just raking for the exercise.

I started composting a couple of decades ago because I can’t stand the idea of bagging leaves for the trash truck. I know many people do that, and it doesn’t make them bad people. But I just can’t bring myself to place a purely natural product in a plastic bag so it can be taken to a landfill.

Leaves are designed to rot. Landfills are designed to keep stuff from rotting.

Organic matter, exposed to water, will break down fairly quickly. Surrounded in plastic and placed in a landfill, all it will do is take up precious space.

If people kept their organic stuff at home, it would extend the life of landfills by decades. If the companies that pick up garbage would separate out all the compostable stuff – the way most now separate out the recyclable stuff – it would accomplish the same thing.

I’m pretty sure that eventually they will, and it will cost us all. If that’s the price to be paid for somebody not coming and building a landfill near my home, I’ll probably pay it, even though I do my own composting.

Composting is pretty simple (I already told you I do it). Leaves are mostly carbon, so they need to be mixed with another organic material that’s fairly high in nitrogen – some kind of manure, green grass clippings, or something like cottonseed meal or dried molasses. It doesn’t take a lot. The ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is around 20-to-1.

Shredding the leaves speeds up the process. One of the best and simplest ways is to just leave them on the lawn, then mow, and empty the bag into your compost bin. It’s important that you wet it all down as you go, because water is absolutely essential to this process.

A certain mass is also essential. Pile it up in some kind of bin or at least in a spot that won’t let it get blown to pieces when the next front comes in. I use coated-wire bins that are four feet square and high. It’s always surprising how much they hold, and how quickly the volume reduces once the process starts. Usually within two weeks, a full bin is half-full.

You can wait about a month and “turn” it, wetting it down again as you do, and in about another month you’ll have finished, rich, black compost. If you just leave it alone, maybe spray a little water over it now and then, you’ll have compost anyway, in about six months.

The leaves will have completed their life cycle, golden as they bud, to green, then gold to brown to black.

Or, you can just put them in plastic bags and pay someone to haul them off. Then, come spring, you can go to a garden store, buy compost and bring it home, in… what else? Plastic bags.

One Response to “The life cycle of a leaf shouldn’t end in a bag”

  1. I lived at a house for 8 or so years that yielded about 120+ bags of leaves per year. First year I lived there I was embarrassed by the huge piles of leaves on the curb, so the next year I constructed and started a compost pile. It’s very easy, and the more organic stuff you put in it, the faster it breaks down. They like fruit and veggies too. The problem was, I just couldn’t use the compost fast enough, so I had to resort back to bags, but instead used the biodegradable bags from the hardware store to get rid of the excess. It’s a viscous cycle. :-)

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