This is not the greatest problem America faces. But still: when did we become so afraid of leaves?
In Maryland’s Montgomery County, where I live, property owners pay the local government $5.42 million per year for leaf removal. And judging from the din in residential neighborhoods across the county on any autumn day, they pay vastly more to the lawn crews who spend hours waving gas-powered blowers. Why the compulsion to corral and banish every fallen leaf?
The prosperous, well-educated suburbs around Washington, D.C. are by and large congenial places to live and raise families. It’s safe to say that demanding jobs, involved parenting, and active retirements are the norm. It's perhaps equally safe to assume that awareness and concern about climate change are relatively high. But you wouldn’t necessarily think so with the prevalence of lawn equipment that spews many times more carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides than a pickup truck. (Check out this study for the grim details.)
Blame lack of awareness and the cult of the lawn. Leaf blowers operate during daylight hours between regular commute times. Residents here keep busy taking care of their own pursuits, so are not present for the decibels and the fumes. And when they are home, they enjoy the look and feel of a nice lawn. I grew up playing on grass and so did my children; I get the appeal.
So what can be done, short of rethinking the whole concept of suburbia? The bulk of the solution is actually pretty easy. After the leaves fall, simply mow the lawn once more and let the pulverized fragments settle into the ground. They’ll decompose and replenish the soil. That’s over $5 million in annual savings just for one county, plus whatever people are paying their lawn service companies. Minus the noise pollution and the greenhouse gases. Not convinced this remedy is best for your lawn? There are plenty of garden experts online who recommend it. (But don’t expect the same advice from the guys you’re paying by the hour to blow stuff around.) And no, you don’t need to get a special mulching mower. Just run your regular mower over the yard and see for yourself.
That’s the easy part. Maybe more challenging is to savor a breath of air enriched by oxygen from all those trees and accept that a few stray leaves drifting onto the lawn is no cause for concern. Let them feed next year’s grass. And for those who want to advance a step further: rake a portion of the autumn drop into a mound in an unused corner of the property and contain it with a simple cage.
Leaves are not a threat. When they descend, there’s no need to mobilize an army of public and private workers to gather and transport them elsewhere. Just recycle them in place. Then have a conversation with your neighbor. We’re in this together. Don’t fear the foliage.