Saturday, December 15, 2018

What A Yard Can Learn From the House it Surrounds

When I see leaves out-cast on the street, I think of what the inside of a home would look like if there were no closets, shelves, or pantry. Clothes would be flung over the furniture. Camping equipment would be piled in a corner of the dining room. The hallway would be cluttered with canned goods and dishes.

Storage is basic to our indoor lives, and yet has somehow gone missing in those outdoor spaces just beyond the front door. We don't make a house presentable for company by tossing all the leftovers in the frig out on the front steps. Somehow a yard is expected to be all living room, all display, without any division of space to accommodate the variety of functions we take for granted indoors. Shrubs could be used to create "rooms", but instead are either pressed against the foundation or along the fenceline.

Thus, when leaves fall, many people feel they have no place to put them other than out on the street, where they represent a hazard for bicyclists and, in this photo, addled parents dropping their kids off for school.

Elsewhere in town, the perception of leaves as litter rather than stowable resource can leave whole lanes blocked for days or weeks.

The alternative involves designing outdoor space to emulate the multi-use partitioning of indoor space. Areas devoted to lawn are like a living room carpet, shrubs are like decorative furniture or walls, trees like a roof. And some out of the way spots serve as closets or pantries, perhaps "walled off" by shrubs.

Dealing with leaves becomes a process of raking them onto a tarp and carrying them off to the "pantry," like wine that will get better with age.

This particular pile of leaves, 10x8x3, looked like a lot, but is mostly fluff, like a big pillow.

The leaves headed to a 6-foot diameter leaf corral which, for demonstration purposes, is integrated into a front yard garden. The pile of leaves from the driveway easily fit in the corral. This year's innovation: the top of the piled leaves was made concave, so that rain will seep into the pile, helping accelerate the decomposition. When a rain comes, the fluffy pile will quickly contract, leaving room for yet another pile of leaves from somewhere else in the yard. Leaf piles continue to reduce in size day by day, which means a leaf corral steadily makes room for more and more material throughout the winter, spring, and summer.

If only closets worked like that.

Maybe it was a youth spent in Wisconsin, driving through farmland dotted with picturesque silos, that makes this frontyard scene seem just as aesthetically pleasing as any other yard on the street. It can be depressing to ride through a town where so many yards are unused, like empty outdoor mansions that are kept swept but devoid of life and utility.

In the photo, the large leaf corral is barely visible behind the tree in the background. The smaller, 3' leaf corral in the foreground is the "Wishing (the earth) Well," which encourages passersby to drop a leaf in and make a wish. It has a central cylinder of critter-proof wire mesh where food scraps get tossed, to decompose while hidden from view by the surrounding leaves. There's no odor because the decomposition process is aerobic.

Each fall, before accepting a new crop of autumn leaves, the Wishing (the earth) Well yields a wheel barrow full of rich compost, to be spread on the vegetable garden.

If only all the unused stuff clogging our homes would magically break down into the building blocks of new life. Yards can learn a lot from houses, and in some ways may come to outshine their teacher. That's the way it oughta be.

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