Allow me to begin the next 25 years (or some fraction thereof) by referring to a moment from the first 25 years, reported in this space just last week. It’s that Walt Whitman comparison, made by the New York Times in an article about U.S. 1 back on October 30, 1987, noting that Route 1 had become a place of its own, and that “all this new place needed was its own Walt Whitman to sing of it, and that is what Rein decided to become.”
Walt Whitman? Back in 1987 I didn’t see the comparison. But now I am beginning to see it. Whitman cranked out the first edition of his signature anthology, “Leaves of Grass,” in 1855. And here I am today turning my attention to an ongoing concern of mine: I will call this one “Leaves on Grass.”
Alright, it’s a stretch. But it’s a new day, a new issue, and I have some thoughts on my mind about, yes, leaves — the ones that pile up on the grass all around us and the ones that we blindly rake away or blow away every fall. I just want to know: Why do we do it?
Sweeping leaves out of gutters and downspouts — that I understand. I will soon sit back and watch the guys from Gutterman do the high wire act above my house in order to clear those gutters and keep water flowing freely off my roof and away from my foundation. Getting the leaves off sidewalks, driveways, and roadways also makes sense — no one needs to be imperiled because of the slippery detritus of nature.
But check out your lawn at home or the lawn around your office, and ask yourself whether it makes sense to expend all that energy (either your own or the fossil fuel to power that noisy leaf blower) to move the leaves from the yard to the street, where your tax dollars are then expended to transport them to — at best — a municipal compost heap or — at worst — a landfill.
What if you just let nature have her way? Would lawns as we know them become extinct?
Not likely (unfortunately, as some would argue). Many gardening experts have debated the issue, and the best argument for raking is that certain “cool-season” grasses, including the beloved Kentucky bluegrass, grow best during the fall, and a thick blanket of leaves would thwart that growth.
But there are some alternatives. At Rutgers Gardens, where beautiful lawns rest cheek by jowl with one of the oldest forests in the state (and all within a stone’s throw of Route 1), they don’t just fervidly rake up the leaves and throw them away.
“We have a lottttttttttttttttt of leaves,” says Bruce Crawford, director of Rutgers Gardens, in an E-mail exchange that permits him to add some emphasis. “We rake the bulk into loose piles and run over the piles (slowly I might add) with the mulching lawn mower. This grinds the leaves into smaller shreds and makes them ideal for mulching or composting. The leaves that are left on the lawn we simply run over with the mulching mower and allow them to filter down into the turf.”
I ask him if, in effect, he is making compost right in place? Yes, he says. “There are a number of reasons, but the prolonged process of mincing leaves may be one of the reasons why — even after a prolonged drought — our grass is still green. There are other factors (the Gardens has wonderful topsoil), but this certainly contributes.”
A Michigan State study, described at a website called finegardening.com, demonstrated that mowing leaves into the lawn (instead of raking them) could improve the lawn. The Michigan State program suggests that setting a rotary mower at a three-inch height and then mowing once a week or so during the fall when the lawn is about four inches high produces the best results. “If you follow these simple guidelines, you will never rake another leaf and improve the quality of your soil,” said the writer, Terry Ettinger.
At Princeton University the administration is hell bent on making the school and its grounds environmentally responsible. As I make my daily commute down Washington Road and observe crews of workers with their leaf blowers, I wonder how all this squares with the sustainability goals.
The university website has only a passing reference to leaves, noting that “100 percent of landscape trimmings and leaves are composted and reused on site” and that “these efforts are carried out according to a plan and schedule developed over the years to maximize the efficiency of the staff and equipment.”
But I do know that the university is minimizing the amount of lawn it has. At 701 Carnegie Center, the university’s new building out on Route 1, the structure is surrounded by 18 to 20-inch ornamental grasses that need no cutting (U.S. 1, October 21). “Since 2008,” the university website reports, “4.7 acres of mowed open areas have been converted to wooded buffer landscapes that absorb stormwater loads and help protect ecologically sensitive habitats from invasive species; these areas do not require irrigation or maintenance once established.”
I especially wanted to talk to Shana Weber, the university’s “sustainability manager” — yes, that’s the title. Weber, who has a bachelor’s in zoology from Ohio State and a Ph.D. in environmental science from Indiana University, walks the environmental walk. “My favorite life-long projects include sustainable living and household-scale farming,” she writes on the university website. “We raise egg-laying chickens, plant vegetable and herb gardens, compost, raise rabbits for pets and high nitrogen manure, and build straw bale and recycled material structures. I love teaching about practical ways to reduce our ecological footprints, by improving the environmental sustainability of everything we do individually and as a society.”
Does Weber get out the leaf blower on weekends? Has the university given further thought to its leaf collection efforts?
Alas, a phone call and an E-mail go unanswered, perhaps because Weber and the university are in the midst of unveiling a new $40 million sustainability program.
So I go back to my muse, and I wonder: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” in the painful spring of 1865, did anyone that fall ask Walt Whitman to rake up those leaves?