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A Gardener’s Magnificent Obsession
by Jim McLain
by Jim McLain


Jim McLain lives and gardens in the Yakima Valley of Washington state. He has been a vender at the Selah Farmers’ Market and has written gardening columns for two weekly newspapers.

Jim is presently the garden columnist for the Yakima Herald-Republic daily newspaper and contributes to the Yakima Valley Master Gardener column that appears in the same newspaper

October 8, 2006

Confession is good for the gardener’s soul, and with that in mind I confess that I am a seriously addicted leaf thief. No, I don’t skulk the night denuding annuals, perennials, shrubs and deciduous trees. And I have no intention of joining Leaf Thieves Anonymous—now or ever! In fact, in all good consciousness, my aim is to recruit you to the ranks of this noble pursuit.

What do leaf thieves do, if they don’t steal leaves? We are the minuscule minority of gardeners who covet the tons of leaves falling all over town each fall to the point that we boldly confiscate them.

We, like all serious gardeners, understand the value of autumn leaves—their rich bounty of trace minerals and organic matter that all garden soils crave.

But need I say more about the ‘why’ of adding leaves to your soil’s diet? It’s ‘how’ to become a successful leaf thief that I want to talk to you about; this is your golden opportunity to learn from a master leaf thief.

I’m going to show you how to obtain all the leaves your gardens can possibly desire. And I will add a few tips on proper selection that will move you quickly from the ranks of raw novice to that of well-seasoned veteran.

You have undoubtedly noticed the ever-increasing number of bags of leaves in residential neighborhoods all lined up at curbside like well-disciplined soldiers. You have driven by and gazed longingly at all that potential ‘black gold’. Perhaps you even slowed down for just a moment before accelerating and turning your mind to loftier thoughts.

You may have even promised to return after dark and make off with those precious bags before anyone is the neighborhood became the wiser.

Wrong! Rule Number One: Never go leaf thieving at night. Some suspicious soul might summon the police, or worse yet, a trigger-happy homeowner could send you prematurely to that Great Compost Pile in the Sky.

Real leaf thieves are bold—we do our work during broad daylight. If you are noticed at all, you will likely be mistaken for a bagwoman/ bagman (bagperson?). And homeowners will be eternally grateful they no longer have their view cluttered by fat black bags silently waiting to be picked up weeks later by overworked city crews.

In all my years of confiscating leaves, I have had only one homeowner question me. This gentleman appeared extremely nervous, but after my explanation, he became a bit more at ease. Well, you can be sure I checked that load of leaves very carefully when I got home. But I found no illicit drugs, contraband, or bundles of stolen money hidden away in the leaves.

Nervous about setting out on your first leaf-thieving jaunt? Then make it easier on yourself by selecting a time when neighborhoods are nearly deserted—when most folks are away at work. Soon you will relax and actually enjoy your outings, whatever the time of day.

Now, a rose is a rose, but a leaf isn’t just a leaf—at least not to a leaf thief. But you need to learn to avoid just a couple of kinds, namely black walnut and butternut. And avoid them like the plague! They contain juglone, a chemical that inhibits the growth of numerous flowers and vegetables. (The amount of juglone in English walnut leaves, however, is insignificant.)

Right from the beginning of your venture into leaf thieving it’s a good idea to begin a Five Star list of addresses that you will want to return year after year. The typical Five Star address has a yard containing only small leafed trees, such as birches, willows and alders. They will need little or no shredding. Once in a while you will hit the leaf thief’s jackpot—bags of leaves that have already been shredded! Tidiness is intrinsic in every Five Star site—bags always full and carefully secured in heavy duty bags. Five Star sites are a delight to leaf thieves.

Scout about until you find enough bags to fill your vehicle at one stop. But each bag must first pass the Tactile Test before being accepted. When you approach a bag, reach out and give it a big bear hut. If it feels lumpy, beware! In my novice days I brought home lumpy bags containing sticks and stones, lost toys, beverage cans, assorted garbage and Fido’s contributions.

Next, each bag must pass the Weight Test. If it is extra light, it is only partially filled, and we leaf thieves don’t fool around with lightweights; we want bags that are round and firm and fully packed.

Bags that are suspiciously heavy, however, must be rejected. They are probably waterlogged from recent rain or melted snow. (If it’s an anaerobic workout you want, go to a gym, not on a leaf thieving expedition.) Bags that are soggy now, will be soggy next spring.

Plan on collecting more leaves you need for this fall’s composting, mulching, tilling under, and for making leaf mold. Collect enough bags to carry you through the next gardening season. Store extra bags of leaves in an-out-of-way place. Cover them with one of those ubiquitous blue tarps to keep them dry and to keep sunlight from breaking down the plastic bags.

Come next spring, you will gaze fondly upon your prized collection. The gleam in your eyes will foreshadow your addiction to leaf thieving, and long before next fall it will have become your magnificent obsession.

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