To leave or not to leave

    That is always the question this time of year. Out my window a surprising amount of foliage is still sticking to the trees, considering the superstorm and snowy Nor-Easter we all endured in the last two weeks.

    But the fallen leaves, mingled with fun size candy wrappers, are beginning to form themselves into drifts along the wall, and the pile I’ve started making in the backyard is growing quickly.

    Environmentalists and organic gardeners have long chastised us about putting autumn leaves out for trash. For good reason- it’s not a sustainable practice. Leaves that end up in a landfill don’t do anyone any good, and interrupting the natural process of decaying organic material in your garden deprives soil of the ability to rebuild itself in future seasons.

    In a forest the leaves stay on the ground until they decompose, and the layer of leaf litter is rarely very deep. This effortless strategy doesn’t work very well in a garden or yard, unfortunately. Unraked yards look messy. Grass gets smothered by wet leaves, as do perennials. And they never seem to decompose the way they should. Come March, spring bulbs struggling to emerge from layers of compacted, sodden black leaves just look depressing.

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    Whole leaves in the compost pile take forever to break down, so last year I went in on a used leaf shredder with a neighbor. Now I’m praying I can get it to start again after 50 weeks in the basement and no instruction manual. If I can, it does a decent job of pulverizing leaves into small pieces, but I read that an hour of running that kind of engine emits the same amount of pollution as driving a car to Chicago. And the leaves need to go through the hopper twice to be shredded fine enough to use as mulch. So that’s the return trip, too.

    I came across a better sounding solution for processing the bounty of fall. Pack a black plastic bag full of leaves, and add some water and a source of nitrogen like vegetable scraps or bloodmeal. Tie the bag closed and wait for about six months until the leaves have turned into compost. I haven’t tried this technique because I don’t have a good hiding spot in my yard for a bunch of semi-permanent bags of trash, but if anyone else has had success with this project or another way of dealing with leaves, please leaf a comment.

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