BY KAREN WEIR-JIMERSON
FALL. IT’S MORE OF A VERB than a season for some people. In autumn, if you have deciduous trees in your yard, then you also have a front-row seat for their seasonal strip tease. First the leaves fall one by one, twirling and pirouetting with grace Pretty. Inspiring. Almost poetic. Then, as if some sort of flag were dropped, leaves race to the ground with manic glee. Your lawn is transformed from a flawless green carpet to a multicolored mass of undulating shapes where your lawn furniture used to be.
We have a big yard with lots of trees. And if you count the deciduous shrubs such as lilac, serviceberry, dogwood, and viburnum, we have no fewer than 50 leaf lossers on the property surrounding the house. From the messy maples to the elegant oaks to the minimalist ginkgo, the trees in our yard provide soothing shade all summer and piles of leaves in the late autumn. (My favorite is the over-achieving ginkgo who drops her green-turned-yellow leaves all on the same day… if only she could aim for a leaf bag.)
Because our yard is just under three acres, we use the two most commonly used pieces of power equipment for fall cleanup: the leaf blower and the chipper/shredder.
Leaf blowers do just what their name implies. They are electric- or gas-powered blowing machines that spew such gusts of air that leaves scatter like, well, leaves. Available in both handheld and backpack versions, these windy wonders blow from 140 mph to 210 mph. And for the multitaskers among us, there are models that also vacuum (with leaf collection bag) and shred, in addition to blowing. They are fast and powerful and make rakes look like something a caveman would use.
The big drawback of leaf blowers is their ear-splitting noise. We live in the country, so we have no neighbors to disturb. But in many areas of the country, particularly in upscale suburbs, leaf blowers are prohibited because of city noise pollution restrictions. They emit a sound that measures 64 to 75 decibels (dBA), depending on the model.
Ear protection is recommended. If you are purchasing a blower, check with local noise ordinances to make sure the model you buy doesn’t exceed the maximum dBA level for your area. And be considerate. Protect your relationship with your neighbors by using your blower responsibly at appropriate times of the day. A leafless yard is not worth a ruined personal relationship.
Another method for dealing with leaves is simply to mow over them with a mulching mower. The shredded leaf bits will break down and contribute nutrients to your lawn. Or, if you have a bag attachment for your lawn mower (mulching or standard), you can essentially vacuum the leaves up off your lawn as you mow.
Although many cities and towns have instituted convenient leaf pickup programs (some request leaves be packed into biodegradable bags and others offer curbside pile vacuuming services), we recycle our leaves into mulch for our garden. We start by reducing the wind-catching surface area of the leaves by shredding them into smaller pieces. A chipper/shredder is great for grinding down mountains of leaves into molehills of mulch. In fact, you can plan on turning about 10 bags of raked leaves into one bag of mulched leaves. Chipper/shredders come in both electric and gas models and roll easily anywhere in the yard.
Once the leaves are mulched and spread on the beds and borders, we prune dead wood from trees and shrubs. When we’re done, we’re left with a pile of randomly sized wood—the big pieces go into the woodpile for the fireplace and the small pieces go into the brush pile, a huge pile of debris that we burn once a year in a family bonfire.
Last year, it was too dry to burn brush, so we opted for creating more mulch by grinding the branches in the chipper/shredder. This amazing munching machine turns the noncompostable debris in our yard into easy-to-spread mulch for the beds and borders. Note: If you have black walnut trees, compost the leaf and wood chips before spreading them on your garden beds. If composted well for several months, their natural toxicity (juglone) will not be a problem.
I must admit that I was initially intimidated by the chipper/shredder (in the same way that I’m a little frightened of a garbage disposal). It’s a no-return proposition. Whatever goes into the hopper comes out the other end in tiny pieces. It’s loud and violent, but I warmed up to it as I reduced a large pile of branches into a compact pile of mulch.
When using a chipper/shredder, it’s a good idea to wear eye protection, because small bits of debris can fly out of the hopper at high speeds. It’s a good idea to wear long sleeves and gloves, too. I also limit my shredding episodes to about a half hour, because my hands vibrate for a couple of hours afterward if I don’t. Another word of caution (and I speak from experience): Don’t overfeed your chipper/shredder. The model type will tell you the maximum size of branch you can feed in—most will chip a branch up to two or three inches in diameter, but no larger. Save the big branches for your fireplace.
Although we only use the leaf blower and chipper/shredder a couple times a year, they come through for the big jobs, and make fall cleanup an effective (though loud) two-day job. H