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Raking bad

Why do we insist on removing leaves from lawns?

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A really big existential question in the religion/philosophy 101 course I failed was "If God exists, why do bad things happen to good people and schmucks prosper?"

Even the Coen brothers in their most probing, religion-based movies have failed to answer this thinker, so how are people of lesser intellect supposed to create an acceptable answer? As the professor swept his learned eye (he wore a patch on the other) about the room, seeking enlightenment from a pile of fresh-faced frosh, I suggested a more pertinent question might be "Why do we rake leaves?"

This so infuriated the old boy he began to quake like an aspen in an October gale, dropping his leaves of wrath about the classroom.

"This is no place for flippancy, mister. Now get out and don't return!" he vented, unkindly.

Actually, the joke was on him because I had asked the question innocently, not intending it to be disrespectful: it seemed the kind of query for which there might be a definitive, non-convoluted answer that could be understood by all.

At least that's what I believed back in the day when I lived in a city 'hood. In those times, denizens of entire city districts were hard-wired by years of ancestral training to sally forth, rakes in hand, when the last, lovely autumn leaf fluttered to the ground. Desiccated leaves, still beautiful in crackling death, were raked into piles, dumped into wheelbarrows, then burned in helpful home incinerators -- actually metal garbage cans with holes drilled in the sides and feet welded to the bottom to prevent, I assumed, an accidental grass fire, or worse. Talk about air pollution! It was as if the smoke from a huge, hilltop forest fire had downdrafted into a salubrious valley -- people on bikes rode blindly into parked cars, those who dared to drive crashed into things, people with respiratory problems (I have asthma) were hospitalized. It was an existential crisis sufficient to cause moments of angst.

Nowadays, thanks to sincere men such as Al Gore, we are aware of the havoc we wreak on the environment by kindling even a single leaf. Instead, we carefully place leaves in plastic bags -- with a half-life of 10,000 years -- dropping them at the curbside until someone hauls them away to a convenient place such as Brady Road Landfill, where the bags burst and the leaves rapidly break down into rich, life-sustaining humus.

So why do so many of us continue to rake leaves, throwing out millions of tonnes of green fertilizer with the potential to enrich our lawns and gardens?

The answer is surprisingly not simple. Curb appeal seems to motivate city dwellers with pristine lawns. Other folks apparently find raking a peaceful way to commune with nature, and still others have been conditioned since youth to rake leaves if they expect an allowance.

In my search for the ultimate resolution to the question, I contacted a spokesperson for a Winnipeg landscaping company, who said leaves should be removed from lawns to allow the grass to breathe during the critical fall months when cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass revitalize themselves.

Apparently, a thick layer of leaves can smoother cool-season grasses that are predominately used throughout southern Canada and the northern U.S.

"I recommend a light raking -- not a power raking -- to get rid of leaves and bits of dead grass to clean up the lawn for spring," the spokesperson said.

On the opposite side of the fence, a friend of mine who lives in the country is so enamoured of leaves as mulch that she drives to the city to collect bags that have been left by the curb of houses with immaculate lawns.

"These make absolutely the best mulch because there are no weed seeds mixed in with the leaves.

"My flower gardens have never looked better since I started mulching with leaves several years ago," she said, adding leaf mulch also reduces the amount of watering required in flower or vegetable gardens or perennially dry areas.

"My husband laid a thick leaf mulch over our pine grove, which tends to dry out very quickly in warm weather. The result has been healthy trees with no brown needles because the mulch retains water and as the leaves breakdown they feed the trees," she said.

Composting is another way to take advantage of green fertilizers.

This technique requires time and effort as the organic material has to be turned frequently with a garden fork or other implement while, at the same time, adding sufficient water to keep the mix at just the right temperature.

There is an enterprising fellow living near Stonewall who has had a composting agreement with the town for several years. In return for the delivery to his farm of all the town's bagged leaves and other organic material, he uses a hand-made composter consisting of three drums powered by a fractional-horsepower electric motor that turns the drums like cement mixers. Leaves are loaded into the drums through hatches that can be opened to add water during the composting cycle.

"I can produce weed-free humus in a few weeks because the heat produced by the breakdown of organic material is sufficient to kill the unwanted seeds," he said, adding he also spreads leaves on his fields to enrich the soil.

If you insist on bagging leaves and consigning them to the landfill, you should purchase the proper equipment for the job.

For traditionalists who enjoy raking, Lee Valley sells a variety of ergonomically designed, good-quality implements that retail for about $20 to $50. Their website at www.leevalley.com lists the entire inventory, including prices, pictures and helpful comments about how to avoid back injuries.

Ed Novakowski of Tyndall Power Products in Tyndall, is a believer in mulching leaves with a lawn mower designed to shred organic material.

"My advice is to purchase a machine that has sufficient power and a cutting system that is engineered to do a proper mulching job," he said.

Novakowski sells a line of self-propelled Honda mowers priced from about $450 to $900 that include wide wheels with ball bearings, rear discharge, a micro-cut two-blade shearing system, a rear bag attachment, as well as the power and durability to mulch leaves and grass into fine particles.

Though Honda products tend to be pricier than those sold by big box stores, my personal experience with Honda has been very positive: the engines start immediately, the decks will not rust or easily dent and they roll effortlessly over almost any terrain.

If you're not into mulching, there are numerous leaf blowers on the market, many of which will either blow leaves into piles or, in some cases, can be reversed to vacuum them into bag attachments.

Blowers are available in electric and gas-powered models, but, like any tool, you get what you pay for; I suggest staying away from cheap blowers sold by big box stores, whether electric or gas.

The universal motors that power trashy blowers are not made to run consistently and will soon burn out; their capacity to move leaves is similar to that of a baby attempting to blow out birthday candles. (I know this because, ashamedly, I own such a machine.)

Inexpensive gas-powered blowers can be a worse nightmare because chintzy, two-stroke internal combustion engines can be difficult to start and, generally, will idle for only a short time before cutting out. (This I also know from bitter experience.)

If you decide to invest in a blower, take a look at some of the two-stroke models made by Stihl. These bad boys produce enough thrust to power a small jet and, unlike electric machines with a cord, allow you the freedom to blow where you want.

For about $250, you can buy a hand-held Stihl blower with a two-stroke motor that will last a lifetime and the machine includes blow or vacuum options. (A good blower will also remove wet leaves from gutters.)

If you really want some horsepower, think about purchasing a Stihl BR600 Magnum Backpack blower for about $550 to $600. With this brute, you can move all the leaves in your yard into your neighbour's in minutes.

There are still other ways to clear leaves from your yard, if you insist.

One is to chop them into smaller pieces with a non-mulching lawn mower or, preferably, a ride-on yard tractor. (My recommendation, the tractor.)

Another is to buy or rent a power rake that will dig every last leaf and piece of dead grass out of your lawn like a carpet cleaner removes accumulated grime from a rug.

One caveat: Some lawn specialists and homeowners warn this technique can be akin to taking a one-iron to your beloved grass, removing divots the size of dinner plates.

As we've arrived at the end of the story without definitively answering why we rake, perhaps we might divert attention by asking another vexing poser: Why is Toronto's hockey team called the Maple Leafs? Shouldn't it be the Maple Leaves?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 F8

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