Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Annual Leaf Quandary

This time of year, Princeton, like all towns, exhibits two philosophies of yard maintenance that are diametrically opposed. One governing philosophy sees fallen leaves as a valuable resource to be composted or used as mulch and slow-release fertilizer. The other philosophy views leaves as useless and annoying litter that must be banished from the yard.

A 10/15 New Yorker magazine article entitled "Blowback: The Suburban Leaf War" describes the point of view that lawns "enhance your property by extending your living space and by advertising your ability to bring nature to heel." A clean yard and close trimming of shrubs exemplifies this view.
Scenes such as this, then, replicated all over town, can be seen as a victory for a community shrugging off nature's assaults on imposed order.

Dumping leaves in the street, though, has many negative impacts, including making the streets messy and more dangerous. Private purification becomes public hazard.

There is a way that residents could have clean lawns AND clean streets, simply by changing the location of a few shrubs. Typical landscaping puts shrubs up against the house and along the fenceline.

But these two photos show an easy way to accommodate a pile of leaves in the yard by planting shrubs around an area designated for the leaf pile. The shrubs serve both as a visual screen and as a way to contain the leaves.
Here's the view from the street. Privet isn't my favorite shrub. Something like Itea virginica or Ilex glabra would work as a native substitute, but the main idea is to reconfigure how shrubs of any kind are planted in the yard, so as to create refuges for leaf piles that will quickly be flattened down by the weight of snow and benefit shrubs and trees through the steady process of decomposition.
Not all leaves need be handled the same way. Here, pine needles and honey locust leaves are so small they can be simply mowed over or raked underneath shrubs to serve as a mulch. Leaves of silver or red maple also tend to "melt" back into the lawn, decomposing quickly. I believe the county extension agents these days recommend simply mowing over leaves and letting them filter back into the turf.

Many leaf blowers come with a bag and a reverse setting that allows them to vacuum up leaves and grind them, making an excellent mulch for around shrubs.

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