Leaving the leaves

As we write, our Northeast Ohio tree canopy is releasing its autumn bounty. By the time you read this, any leaves not saved for use in home gardens will have been hauled away by area cities.

That’s too bad for local flora, the regional watershed and, ultimately, the global food supply. Decaying leaves, brush and other biomass build our soil and create essential habitat for the insects and other creatures that pollinate our garden plants. In addition to interrupting neighborly conversations, leaf blowers blast pollinators and their habitat to kingdom come.

Every year, the city of Cleveland Heights spends approximately $340,000 collecting residents’ leaves. Exactly what currently happens to all of this biomass is somewhat murky.

Companies in the mulch and compost business charge $5 per cubic yard to “accept” it. However, a 2018 public works staff report to the city manager stated:“Yard waste is another material that is becoming more difficult to recycle. . . . Contamination is a serious problem. . . . Registered composting facilities cannot accept contaminated yard waste because they are not authorized trash facilities.”

We often note fast-food containers and plastic bags of dog-doo adorning kraft bags or curbside piles of leaves awaiting pickup. Ultimately, the consequence could be entire truckloads of contaminated yard waste deposited in landfills, where it will emit climate-warming methane.

Older readers will remember when we used to burn piles of leaves in our backyards. We have come a long way, but we have much farther to go.

Our tree canopy gives us free organic fertilizer. Let’s not squander our city’s resources by hauling it away and paying someone to recycle it—or, even worse, paying landfill tipping fees if it is found to be contaminated and therefore designated as trash.

Peggy Spaeth, John Barber, Allen Wilkinson, Susan Miller and Tom Gibson are among a growing number of Cleveland Heights residents urging their neighbors to “leave the leaves.”

Those who have planted small native gardens along the Bradford pollinator path and on Langton and Northampton roads in the Noble neighborhood are probably inclined to listen; likewise, the volunteers who created the Delmore Community Orchard.

The simplest method is to take the bag off your mower and mow the leaves into small pieces. Let them remain on your lawn or spread them over flower and vegetable gardens, to break down over the winter. On heavily forested lots, just leave them under the trees.

What is good for our grass and gardens is also by far the best for pollinators. Keep the bounty of the trees on site. Mowing and raking jumpstarts in-place composting, which quickly creates welcoming homes for new pollinators. And mowing feeds fungi and microbes, also essential to the life cycle of our ecosystem.

Cleveland Heights City Hall deserves kudos for getting the message. After listening to residents Spaeth, Barber and Miller, the city’s parks and recreation director, Joe McRae, had piles of woodchips from the forestry department delivered to Shaker Lakes’ Lower Lake, to be distributed on trails there by the Friends of Lower Lake. McRae is also considering the advantages of mowing leaves into lawns on city property. The city’s communications director, Mary Trupo, has highlighted the “leave the leaves” campaign in city news bulletins, pointing out how every residential gardener can join this party.

In 1995, Cleveland Heights set a high standard as the first municipality in the country to ban pesticides on city property. We are not the first to leave the leaves, but we are learning. To see the example set in Westchester County, N.Y., visit www.leleny.org. And from now on, consider leaving your leaves!

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 9:21 AM, 12.01.2020