Town Crier: Rakers and blowers

What shape is your yard in? My neighbor's yard is mowed with a sprinkle of fall leaves on it. My parent's yard is clear of leaves with an exception of a leaf here or there that has blown in from across the road.

My yard? A blanket of leaves.

Leaves so thick that when my old dog takes a nap in the afternoon sun it's like she's got her own big, thick mattress with one of those mattress toppers to boot. There are enough leaves to keep a botanist busy for a lifetime sorting through them. So many leaves that even thinking about getting them out of the yard exhausts me. But it's an annual chore that must be done by the conscientious homeowner.

Actually, I've already done some work in the yard and it's noticeable in one section where some winter brown grass is visible. But the heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively, lies ahead. And so I'm faced with the choice for tackling the job: rake or blower?

The good old days

In days past there was only the rake option. I grew up with the classic metal-tined rake in either green or red. Many families with really big yards might have had multiple rakes so several folks could join in to make quick work of the job, getting it done in a day. When I was very small helping to rake leaves at my cousin's house, my job was to grab armloads of the leaves and help pile them up in the designated area of the yard where they would be burned ... because that's how you go rid of them back then.

We would pile them in the ditch in front of the house (this is out in the county so don't get too worried) and once the fire got going you'd throw the next armload in on top. It would initially suffocate the fire creating a thick smoke but soon the new leaves would heat up and burst into flames until the next armload landed on top. Cars driving by would have to slow down as they passed through the gray cloud of smoke we made.

Speaking of clouds of smoke, when I was maybe 12, my neighbor (about my age) was tasked to rake the leaves for his parents. He raked them in a pile in his yard and decided to burn them. Of course the smoke caught my attention and across to his yard I went. At 12, as exciting as fire was, a simple match was too boring for him. He had gone to the work shed and got the gas can for the lawnmower. I think he went through a couple of gallons of gas as he would pour the fuel on, load the pile with leaves and then light'er up. Whoooosh! He'd let it burn out and repeat the experiment. It took him all afternoon to do about an hour's worth of raking because of the bonfire. I headed home smelling of gas and smoke, which I knew would alarm my parents. I went straight to the shower.

The other place to occasionally burn the leaves was over on the garden bed. By October or November the veggies were long gone and by spreading the leaves out and burning them there the ashes would add to the enrichment of the ground and improve next year's harvest. At my home I don't burn leaves but I do take the ashes out of the fireplace and add them to the little garden spot I've got in the backyard. The value of the nutrients depends on the type of leaves you're burning there and how wet or dry the year was.

The house I grew up in had a big, open lawn with pine trees around the perimeter and some magnolias thrown into the landscape mix. Of course those are evergreen trees so they never shed as completely as an oak or sycamore. The pine needles generally fall straight down and when mowing the yard you could just drive around the pine trees and let the pine needles pile up in a circle at the base. Same thing with the magnolias. The magnolias limbs were so close to the ground that they hid the pile of leaves around their base. About the only raking we did in that yard was in the summer when we had to rake the grass clippings from mowings. I've never known anyone to burn grass clippings.

Many people bag their leaves and leave them for the garbage trucks to pick up. And you always see yard crews either at houses or at businesses blowing the leaves with gas powered blowers. I drive past going one way and they're blowing the leaves. I drive back the other way and they're done and the yard looks great and I have no idea where they blew the leaves to. It's a bit of a mystery to me.

The eternal question

That brings me back to my house now. Raker or blower? How about both?

They do slightly different jobs, although the desired end result is the same -- get rid of the leaves. My issues are multiple. First, I have a big yard. Second, it has a lot of trees. Third, there are woods behind my house and in front and those woods are full of trees! And fourth, I never have a long enough day to do the whole yard in one pass. That's means I get started, get some of the yard done and then have to stop. Sometimes, depending on my work schedule, it might be a week before I get back to it. That's where I am now.

Ideally, you want those leaves good, dry and lightweight before you blow or rake. And no wind please. If it's windy raking is a little better I've found because I can kind of keep the leaves low to the ground as I move them around, almost like I'm scraping the yard clean rather than raking. If there's no wind then the blower is a good option. The dry leaves will blow easily and soon I have a wall of leaves moving across the yard.

The only setback is I have an electric leaf blower and so I get to the end of the extension cord and I still have some yard left. Depending on the day I may go and try and find the other extension cord, which is where I left it last fall when I was blowing leaves. Of course, after a year, I have no memory whatsoever of where that place is. Knowing this ahead of time I will usually just go ahead and start raking. I hate losing momentum when I'm getting something done.

Rain is my big bug-a-boo. The leaves get heavy and wet and the blower won't hardly move them. The rake works but it's at least three times as hard by my reckoning. If I've done some work in the yard and have some piles of leaves and then the rain comes (which usually happens at some point during the raking season), I've resorted to a pitchfork to get those wet, sticky leaves onto the blue tarp I use to drag the leaves away.

Whether I use a rake or blower my method is the same: I move the leaves across the yard in a wave as opposed to alleys. I have a place in the back where I pile the leaves up next to the woods and by spring they've compressed and started to compost. Part of the compression comes from the aforementioned old dog climbing on the pile and snoozing. The tarp helps me take big piles of the leaves to the dump ground, much more per trip than the days when I carried leaves by the armload.

There's one other thing that needs mentioning. It has to do with the speed at which I get the leaves moved. If it was only me by myself I could get things done faster but as I have a helper it takes longer. In addition to the old dog, I've got a young dog, not even 2 years old yet. She has some Australian shepherd in her and so is a herding dog. She tries to herd the rake or the windstream from the blower depending on which one I'm using. With barks and ballet like feints and parries against the rake or blower, I'm constantly having to wave her away. I will find sticks in the yard as I rake and throw them for her to fetch. She goes after them but usually crashes right through the middle of the leaf pile. Who needs a breeze to spread the leaves when you've got a hyper dog to dive through the middle of the leaves, knocking them around even as I pile them up?

So what will I do differently this year as I clear the yard of leaves? Probably nothing, except spend more time playing fetch with the dog. When it comes to me being a raker or a blower, I'll be both.

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

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