Putting waste to work

Our property is full of gorgeous, huge old trees. We love the shade they provide… but that also means they drop So. Many. Leaves. It’s just insane. We used to fill up the pickup truck’s bed with leaves six to seven times from the front yard alone.

That’s not a bad thing (well, except when I’m actually faced with collecting them). Like I said, two or three years in a row we dumped all those tarploads and truckloads of leaves on the swampy part of the garden, and raised the soil level there a few inches even in just that short time, crazy as that sounds (but it’s true – we didn’t use to be able to walk there at all).

Leaves are Nature’s fertilizer… but they’re also designed to smother competing vegetation, which for us unfortunately means the grass. And we still care at least a little about our reputation with the neighbors – which means the leaves have to go. A major chore and source of tension every year.

It took me a while to figure out I could use the lawnmower (our tiny, electric, wimpy lawnmower) to collect them. (I know, DUH, right? I’m just reinventing the wheel all over the place here.) And suddenly, my leaves were beautifully shredded and just perfect to use for mulch on the garden instead of straw, which I would have had to buy.

Co-generation, as the permaculturists say: the act of creatively using waste as a positive contribution to fulfill another set of goals. Michael Pilarski likens it to the act of directing hot air from your dryer into your greenhouse to warm it; because the hot air was going to be there in any case but now you’re putting it to work. My first thought on hearing this term was those cow poop natural gas digesters that people buy/make. Co-generation is stacking productive uses onto a process that’s already going on and would otherwise create waste.

So instead of putting these leaves out to be taken to the dump, they become a deep mulch layer for the garden, saving me a lot of money on straw and contributing to the health of my soil as the organic matter keeps piling up. My garden has to be mulched in any case… so why not use this free soon-to-be-compost that I’ve already had to gather up anyway?

But dang, my lawnmower – and its bag – is really tiny. And we have a lot of lawn.

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Hm, I thought, if only I had a really giant leaf collecting mower bag. Is that even a thing? I can’t be the first person ever to want one of those.

Looking around for options, I googled up this $125 beauty:

lawn_leaf_bag

Hm, I thought, that doesn’t look too hard to make.

I drew a sort of pattern on an old tarp, and then when I realized the old tarp would fill my lovely expensive sewing machine with dirt and grossness, I went and bought a new tarp. Using a double thickness, I sewed a bag more or less like the above, using leftover window screen from the basement for the vents. I bought some industrial strength velcro as well – man that stuff is sticky! I took off our regular mower bag, wrapped the lips of the tarp around the bag frame and used the velcro to secure them back to the main body of the tarp. More velcro secures the flap that tents over the bar to support the rear of the bag.

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Well, I never said it was pretty. And that pile is above knee-high. It’s more impressive in person, really.

To my great surprise, it works! I know the bag is getting full when the lawnmower starts tipping backwards, lol. Only 3 loads with this bag is all I can comfortably handle dragging behind me on the tarp, so I estimate that it holds between 3-5 regular mowerbagfuls.

$10 tarp + $10 specialized velcro = win! Awesomeness! There were some problems though, that you can avoid if you want to make your own.

1) bottlenecking. It’s funnel-shaped, and with all the pressure from the leaves weighing down it gets really hard to empty this sucker. Next time I’d put a reeeeaaaaally long zipper or velcro seam down the side instead of across the back. I had one – a robe zipper – but it wasn’t long enough (needed 40″). Also, it was pink.

2) you might want to vent it  away from your face. This is messy. And not for people with allergies. All the dust, tiny leaf bits, grass flecks, etc that can fit through the screen are propelled out hard with the air from the mower… right into your face. Even with the flap folded over the handlebar, the wind from the sides seems to blow straight back up my nose. If I ever do a version 2.0 I’m definitely relocating the vents or putting a protective flap up somewhere strategic.

3) use heavy-duty thread. No-brainer, right? Except I didn’t even know if this would work, so I didn’t want to make a trip to the nearest Joann’s (30 minutes away) for one spool of thread. I used regular thread instead and hoped it would be strong enough, sewing a double seam in many places… it isn’t. A few stitches have already popped. I think it might last another season no problem, but it will eventually need to be restitched. Or just remade.

Still a gamechanger for me – anything to make this horrible task a little easier, with a little less arguing over whose turn it is to do it this year. Especially if it makes my garden richer in the process, and I’m accomplishing two tasks with the work of one.

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