The Language of Home

The Art of Raking Leaves

Or, mulch ado about nothing

By Noah Salt

Across the Triad, as the pageant fire of autumn settles in, the serenity of gently falling leaves is invariably drowned out by the roar of the industrial-sized leaf blowers, as crews and homeowners armed with bazooka-like wind machines mounted on their backs fan out through the neighborhood.

For those of us who predate such noisy time-saving devices, the popularity of leaf blowers that artificially do what nature does for free — i.e., blow stuff — seems both a blessing and a curse meant to shorten the time one must spend with the lawn.

Back in the “good old days,” whenever they were, raking leaves was a seasonal chore best accomplished with a well-made rake, a decent-sized sheet or tarp, and a couple of dedicated hours of moderate labor that some regarded as “good exercise.”

The dedicated leaf-raker doesn’t care a fig about “back-breaking labor associated with traditional leaf-raking and bagging leaves,” as we recently read in a swanky brochure for a deluxe $499 deluxe leaf blower that could probably whisk the shingles off your house or endanger small children if you aren’t careful where you aim it.

Sad to confess, this humble yardman was seduced into shelling out good folding money for a moderately priced blower that generally only terrified the dog and knocked wifey’s potted plants off walls until we got the hang of using it. Somehow, we couldn’t shake the feeling that it was like trying to wield an oversized hair drier, producing a racket that made our ears ache. It sits quietly on a shelf in the garage pondering its sins to this day.

Besides, with the right attitude and something of a yeoman’s approach to the art of strategically hand-raking one’s lawn, personally removing the thatch and detritus of a long hot summer and building fragrant funeral pyres of leaves at the curb can be a genuine pleasure and the ideal family activity.

We know a clan up north that actually holds a traditional lawn-raking party every Thanksgiving afternoon, complete with refreshments and a little touch football fun  — topped off by the annual Pilgrim chow-down.  “Of course,” notes the patriarch of the clan, “the kids all jump in the leaves and we have to do it all over. But that’s part of the fun.”

The word “rake” derives from the Old English word “raca” or possibly the early German “rechen,” which translates as “gather up” or “scrape together.” Either way, as an agrarian tool, the simple hand rake is one of the oldest and most useful implements known to man. So when you’re holding that leaf rake from Lowe’s this fall, enjoying the sounds and smells of autumn in its full, unviolated glory, you can take comfort that your Anglo or Teutonic ancestors from the early Middle Ages forward used a nearly identical tool to weed their gardens and “scrape together” their leaves.

For those who prefer an even simpler solution to this seasonal chore, a turf grass researcher from the University of Minnesota suggests using your lawnmower to mow leaves as they fall, producing a light mulch that can enhance the soil of the yard with important nutrients.

“The leaves,” Sam Bauer told the The Washington Post, “have organic matter in them: you’re adding good organic matter to your soil when you’re not picking them up.” No special equipment is needed, just a good working lawnmower. “If your lawnmower has a side discharge outlet, where a bag or chute usually goes, just close it up,” Bauer says. “What that does is it keeps the leaves in the housing of the mower and they get chopped up much more finely.”

He adds that the mulch not only puts more organic material into the soil, making lawns healthier, but also dramatically suppresses weeds come the spring.

With leaf rake in hand as the leaves float forth this fall, we may just give Bauer’s approach a try. Or perhaps a combination of the two, traditional raking with a little season-ending, mulch-mowing as a finale.

In any case, as the ruckus of industrial-sized leaf blowers disturbs the domestic tranquility of the neighborhood, we’ll quietly take up our leaf rake and bring back the quiet old days — if not the Middle Ages.

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