Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I have gone over to the dark side

My neighbors' trees, lovely, and rich with autumn leaves:

 And the trees are not only rich, they are generous, too, for each autumn they like to donate their leaves to my garden:

There is much talk these days about leaving the autumn fall in our planting beds, and generally, I agree. Leaves make good mulch, holding in warmth and moisture, and adding nutrients to the soil as they break down. However, I've learned from past experience that leaving this many on top of the plants can smother them from light, and they become scraggly versions of their former selves. Also, the leaves that actually wind up in my garden look like this:

That is a sycamore leaf on the right and a magnolia on the left. You might well ask what a magnolia, a  tree adapted to the warm, moist climate of the southern United States, is doing in the high plains of west Texas, with its frigid winters and lack of rainfall. Good question.

Anyway. These are too big to break down quickly, and therefore will not add much in the way of nutrients. Furthermore, as Dee Nash, over at Red Dirt Ramblings, pointed out, big leaves don't break down any quicker in compost, the result of which means I usually have bags and bags of leaf litter stored throughout the year as they wait in line to go into the bins.

In past years, all of my autumn leaf work has been human-powered, and I'll confess, I've felt pretty danged self-righteous about that. No loud leaf blowers for me, disturbing the quiet of the 'hood on a Saturday morning. No lawn vacuums separated me from the natural, zen experience of the simple rake. I was pure.

But honestly, when I looked at that pile of leaves a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly decided that enough is enough. I'm tired up reaching into scratchy shrubs, and pokey cacti and yucca to dig out leaves. I'm tired of bagging up bags and bags of leaves. I'm tired of looking at the bags and bags of leaves for the rest of the year. I don't wanna be zen all the time. Sometimes I want expediency, dammit.

And so I marched down to the big box and bought this:

Yes, a leaf blower. My students who are reading this are laughing right now, for often they have heard me rail against the ridiculous use of this contraption on campus. Armies of workers will wander around with noisy, gas-powered blowers, pushing a single leaf over here. Then over there. Then back again.

Ridiculous. Wasteful. Loud. Really, really annoying.

But this one is not just a leaf blower, it is an electric leaf blower, and it is also a vacuum and mulcher. The latter, in fact, is the thing that finally sold me on it, since the maker claimed it could shred eight bags of leaves down into one. And that, my friends, is a very compelling reason to dip a toe in the dark pools of Loud and Annoying.

Plus, as a former student reminded me, a good tool, properly used, can also be zen.

So, I set to work with high hopes. And the leaf blower, a Toro, did perform well as a vacuum on some tasks, such as getting the leaves out from the base of this mule ear prickly pear:

Uh, yeah. Click on the photo for a look-see at those thorns. Dare you to reach in there. But the Toro did it with aplomb:

It also did a good job of cleaning up the leaf litter that always gets caught in the gravel between flagstones:

But the leaves that blanketed the santolina and cotoneasters were just too thick for the vacuum to handle. In the end, I had to resort to using the blower function to get them out of the grips of the plant and then raking them up into mounds. Once I had big piles of leaves, though, I was still faced with the problem of how to mulch them to reduce the volume. So I resorted to borrowing a neighbor's big gun, a shredder vac:

And after many hours of work, my big mess of leaves was reduced to this:

Don't get too excited--this photo is meant to show that it was reduced to fine litter, not to a single handful of leaves. I mean, just how good do you think those machines are?

The piles still overflowed my compost, but I'd estimate that I reduced the volume of stored leaves by two-thirds, which is still pretty darn good. And since the shredded litter is finer, it will take less time to compost it down.

I did allow some of the leaf litter to remain in the beds, partly for nutrient/moisture reasons, and partly because I like the way it makes the beds look more natural (note: the yuccas in the next picture were almost completely covered by the sycamore leaves):

I estimate that we have one more leaf fall ahead of us, but the remaining trees have smaller leaves and so should not pose as great a problem. I'll probably leave them over the winter to provide warmth for the plants, and rake them up during spring cleanup.

And I can return to feeling pure.


  1. Welcome to the dark side young Susan. We have shredders and mulchers and more. Yes, it is good to be here.

    Thanks for the link love.~~Dee

  2. Susan, I know what you mean. A few days ago, I wrote about my own new leaf mulcher (a different type than yours; have a look at my review). I feel bad about the use of energy and the noise pollution. But all those nice chewed-up leaves lessen my guilt.

  3. There's dark, and there's twilight - Sears used to sell and ELECTRIC leaf shredder. I had one in the 80s when I lived in Hurst. Basically a weed-whacker in a trash can - worked pretty well.

  4. Puritanical only goes so far in the garden. Far better to ease the discomfort of an unpleasant job than dread spending your time at it. And look at all the wonderful, easily composted material you have. It's a win/win thing. :) Great post.

  5. My mom has a gas powered leaf blower now. It's a hog and hard to use. My back and arms were quite sore. I used it to blow the leaves out of my iris beds which was much faster but it wasn't easy. Your new manchine sounds pretty nice.

    This year we are dumping all the maple leaves into the veggie garden. Should be great in the spring onced tilled in. We mowed the lawn with the rider and sucked up the leaves mulched them at the same time! Now that makes short work.

  6. Welcome to the dark side! Bwa ha ha...

    I confess, there is an electric leafblower AND and electric chipper/shredder in my tool pile. I have never, ever, ever considered sweeping my driveway. No idea how long that long thing is, but it's too long to sweep. Even so, it's usually littered....

  7. The dark isn't so bad, is it? I confess that I have a leaf blower, and an electric chipper. The leaf blower and I manage to get along so-so, but that electric chipper is my new best friend!

  8. A trip over to the dark side is ok as long as you eventually return to the light :-)

  9. Oh Susan, you are only in the dusk. I must be at midnight during a new moon. I now use a garden tractor (gas!) and a leaf sweeper -and love, love, love them. When I lived in town I used a small electric mulching mower, but on the farm with dozens of huge deciduous trees this is the only way to accomplish anything and not be bent over in pain. On the bright side, with rotational grazing of our 3 cows I only had to mow my lawn twice all summer and I use all my shredded leaves for deep mulching of my veggie garden--which meant I only watered a couple times when the seedlings were first planted. Maybe if I trained the cows to pull I could avoid the mower...

  10. I would love to have a tool that could get the leaves out of my gravel paths and that are stuck in and on the various agaves and yuccas. We're you using the blowing function to blow them out? I've tried using wet/dry vac and the gravel and the leaves get caught up together.

    Little stones in my leaf piles are also a problem when I use my electric chipper/mulcher.

    But your "after" photos are very, very tempting.

  11. Dee--You're welcome on the link love!

    Helen--I'm thinking that the chewed up leaves goes a long ways toward ameliorating the guilt.

    John--Hey there, pal! Santa Fe seems to be treating you and Teri well.

    Nancy--win/win indeed. I am never going back.

    Michelle--I thought seriously about the mower, but finally decided that I wanted to keep the long prairie grass look through the winter. I'll bet those maple leaves are pretty.

    Michelle--I've already decided to get an electric chipper shredder for next year. And somehow it makes me feel better to know that you are over here on the dark side; that means it can't be all that dark.

    Carol--I read the review on that new chipper and I am seriously looking at it for next year.

    EG--I will never not return to the light. ;-)

    Susan--LOL! Midnight at new moon is a good one!
    You have a better excuse for the big guns than I do, though, since your place is much bigger than mine.

    Melissa--I used the vacuum setting on the gravel areas. It provided just enough suction to get the leaf litter, but left the decomposed granite and limestone gravel in place. Worked perfectly. Now that I've got so much more gravel in the front garden, I think the vacuum setting will really pay off. However, when I switched to the blower, it blew the granite and gravel around quite a bit.

    On the other hand, the vacuum worked pretty well on the cactus and yuccas, but the blower worked even better. So both functions had some things they worked better for.

  12. Funny, because I was indeed laughing out loud by the time I got to your sentence about expediency. Then I scrolled down and was admittedly impressed with your foresight. Hilarious. You know us well.

  13. Glad it worked out for you! I tried a neighbor's Toro on my dry stream bed, and too many leaves were stuck in the pebbles. It was basically noisy and heavy and just as slow as picking the leaves out by hand.
    That said, if my knees or back don't cooporate one day, I'll get one of those devilish contraptions myself.
    (I should mention we have garden waste pickup here, so I can just toss what I collect into a toter and the city does the shredding and composting).

  14. Well I just wish we had some leaves! Yes, ridiculous I know, but all we've got are pine needles and they're only use is for lighting the fire!

  15. Never say never. We use an electric leaf blower too. If you grow agaves and other spiky plants, there's no other way to get the leaves and acorns out of them.

  16. Interesting read and very tempting. I've never used a blower (and I always grouse when my neighbor does). But I can definitely see the advantages. I've used skinny bamboo sticks to scrape the leaves out of my agaves. But I'm always wishing for an easier way and I KNOW a blower would be the way.

  17. Nothing wrong with beinga little self righteous--or a lot. Your a lot gets pulled back down to hardly any by the many other neighbors who mow twice a week and, in 20-30mph wind, also blow the clippings back on to the lawn. I digress. I'm turning into a grinch / grouch.

  18. I've used an electric leaf vac for many years now (I've just broken my 3d), and I'm tired of it. I'm ready now for a leaf shredder. The leaf vac makes my back ache and it's so loud. (I've never used it as a blower.) I will concede that it's better than the weed-whacker in a trash can (I've tried that too). Maybe if I wasn't leaf vac'ing from the end of August through November, I wouldn't hate it so much. But I do love my leaf mold.

  19. Add me to the list of those living on the dark side. I do feel less guilty for ours is electric and somewhat more quiet than the gas powered ones. We also use an electric lawnmower which is much more quiet than the gas. I like to blow the leaves into a nice pile and then vacumn them, emptying the bag into the compost bin the first few times, then leaving the zipper open for a light covering of the beds. One thing we noticed, when gravel was accidently sucked up, it quickly made large holes in the plastic housing, sending flying rocks at us at high speed. A cut up black plastic flowerpot and duct tape patched the hole, but the tape adhesive weakens as leaf dust is forced into it. Now a rubber band holds the whole patch on, and a helping hand from the gardener.


  20. A leaf blower always need for garden and yard

  21. I also like having a tool to clean the leaves and twigs away from our paths and grass. I used a leaf vacuum mulcher and it works pretty well on wet leaves.


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