I’m sitting at my home office desk, looking out the window at the early December day beginning to unfold outside. Long morning shadows slice across the street from the elm tree by my driveway. My own front yard is a chaotic mess of drying vegetation – the stems and stalks of the root-perennial legumes under my little dwarf fruit trees trapping the loose blowing leaves coming from the elms and other deciduous trees in my yard and the neighbors’.
Across the street, on the sunny side, one neighbor is finishing bagging up the mulberry leaves from her tree, soon to be placed out on the curb for someone to pick up. She is among the cleaners – the majority of homeowners who are tidy in their landscapes. Great care and effort are expended every year to rake and bag and haul away all that old dead plant stuff. Leaf blowers are in full tilt all over the city, spewing their particularly dirty exhaust into our planet’s already over-exhausted skies while annoying one and all with their noise.
Some of us, however, take a different tack. We are the gleaners – the people who furtively stop at the curbside pile of bagged leaves and then throw as many bags as we can into our pickup truck, or trailer, or the trunk of the car. We take these bags back to our own properties, hoarding all that precious organic matter so that we can turn it into healthy living soil. Some gleaners are very industrious, like the unknown well-meaning soul who took the bags I had gleaned from down the street, which I had left at the top of my driveway. Hey, man – those are my bags of trash! I’m sure they thought they were helping out a cleaner, not stealing from a gleaner! Oh well, there’s a lot to go around and I’ve since pinched a few truckloads from here and there.
What to do with all that stuff? Some folks make large compost piles, either hot (actively managed, quick to break down) or cold (piled and left, slow to break down). Some, like me, will use the bags as a winter mulch over resting veggie garden beds, holding in what little winter moisture may come our way, slowly decomposing and in the process feeding all the little insects and arthropods, microbes and fungi that make up a healthy living soil. After all, that is the goal – a healthy, living soil promotes the growth of healthy living plants!
My point in all this is to make a plea for gleaning over cleaning. Nature, at its best, is a messy affair. What is trash to the tree is food for the microbes; what is trash for the microbes (yes, they go potty in their own microbe way) is food for the tree. Don’t be hasty to be a neat-nik; let your yard instead be a beatnik, all long hair and unshaven, reading poetry to the moon. Learn to see the cycles in nature and then ride those cycles to a brighter, healthier future for us all.