Notes from the Glebe

I Speak for the Leaves

Nov 16, 09:48 AM

by Dana Swanson

The daylight is shorter, the mornings are crisper and the leaves are littering the ground; it is officially autumn.

Each year, Augustana’s fall break brings me home for one of my least favorite family traditions. Not-so-creatively dubbed “Leaf Day,” it is the day my parents, my brother and I rake the leaves off the lawn. (I thought when I left for college I was escaping this chore, but alas, the past four years my father has intentionally waited for me to be home on break. Thanks, Dad.) No surprise, I found myself present to participate in the festivities when “Leaf Day” rolled around last weekend.

I claimed conscientious objection to the leaf relocation this year; safe to say, my sentiments were not respected. Despite my childish reluctance to complete an assigned chore, I was sincerely questioning why we rake leaves. Why not let them be? I don’t mind the quilted spectrum of leaves littering the grass. I appreciate the colors on, as well as off, the trees.

From what I gather, we rake leaves because we don’t want them to suffocate our lawns. If left on the lawn, the grass will brown from the leaves. I also understand that leaves can create potential safety hazards when covering sidewalks and roads, especially when damp. So instead of leaving the leaves, we collect them. What do we do with the piles and piles of raked leaves? Some are burned, creating air pollution. Others are collected by the city, which requires fossil fuels for transportation and disposal. At Augustana, Facilities terrorizes campus with loud leaf blowers and then sucks up the leaves with a vacuum-like hose attached to a truck. Nevertheless, a few leaves actually prove themselves useful.

Last fall, the city of Moline brought truckloads of leaves to Wesley Acres Produce, the farm where I interned this summer. The massive wall of leaves shrunk all winter, releasing heat as it decomposed. By the summer, the leaves were ready to be used as compost; in this picture, the leaves were used as compost around a tomato plant. I had the pleasure—and I use that word loosely—of spreading the decaying leaves between the rows of crops. When I pitchforked the leaves from the back of a wagon into the rows, the scent from the compost overpowered my own perspiration. The odor was pungent, yet not unpleasant. As the leaves decomposed, they released an earthy aroma, rich in substance, similar to the way it smells in the woods after rainfall. The leaves I spread as compost keep the weeds down, but they also improve the quality of the soil.

When we rake the leaves, we are preventing them from fulfilling their role as soil enhancers. The leaves should continue the natural cycle, contributing a layer of humus, enriching local soils and local culture.

Every autumn the leaves will fall—let them. If leaves must be cleared, use a rake. Listen to the rustling teeth of the rake grazing the grass rather than the obnoxious leaf blower’s scream. Instead of burning the leaves, use them as compost in your gardens. “Leaf Day” comes but once a year, best to make the fruits of your labor count.



  1. Thanks for this posting, Dana—I’ve been thinking along the same lines all fall long. According to an article in the Argus this weekend, the city of Moline is now paying farmers to bring out their tractors and bale leaves like hay!

    Nick · 3136 days ago · #

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