Confessions of a Leaf Thief

Some people think that the proper way to tidy up the yard for fall is to rake or blow every single leaf into giant brown bags from Home Depot, said bags to be taken away by the city. This makes me insane.

I mean, what a waste. Good soil needs organic matter. Leaves turn into – yes! – organic matter. So why would you throw out all your leaves as if they were garbage and then buy extra bags of compost, peat moss, and fertilizer?

In my garden, leaves that land in the beds and borders are allowed to stay there. The rest are divided three ways: some go on the compost piles, some are spread under shrubs and trees, and some are left in an out-of-the-way pile over winter, to be used as mulch the following year. (Full disclosure: I also do buy some mulch, composted manure and mushroom compost – but I buy less because I use my leaves.)

It used to be I wasn’t satisfied with only my own leaves. I was on a one man mission to ensure that our neighborhood leaves should not fall in vain. I started by asking my immediate neighbors if I could have their leaves, and they were gracious enough to agree.

Even so, every time I saw bags of leaves piled up in the alley or on the street I was reminded of the inadequacy of my efforts. So I turned to stealing.

Leaf Bags
Such a shame.

I would get up early in the morning and sneak down the alley, grab leaf bags and drag them back to the house. Or if I drove past leaves left on the curb, I would pull over, check if the coast were clear, and throw them into the trunk. Then I’d speed away as if I were Pretty Boy Floyd after a bank robbery.

Eventually I tired of this life of crime. For one thing, there’s really only a finite number of leaves I can use in my modest suburban lot, especially after my garden started filling in. Second, whole leaves make a good mulch in woodsy areas at the back, but can be problematic in flower beds.

You have to be careful that young plants aren’t smothered, especially by the bigger leaves. Also, robins and other birds love to hunt for bugs among the leaves, which is great, but in a flower bed that can mean half your leaves end up on the grass.

It’s generally recommended that you shred leaves before using them as mulch. This is not an option for me, however, as I am unwilling to buy either a shredder or a power lawnmower (I have a reel mower).

Anyhow, I gradually lost my drive to Save The Leaves. Now I’m back to using only the leaves that fall on my own yard. Still, when I see bags of leaves piled up like trash, I feel a faint stirring.

Have you ever been a leaf thief? What do you do with your leaves?

64 Comments on “Confessions of a Leaf Thief

  1. That is a pretty amusing story 🙂 I usually use them around the base of my trees. And my leaf stealing is a little different. I usually take leaves and acorns from a neighboring oak!

      • I use them as vase fillers, kids craft with them etc. I just like having them. I try to get them still on small branches and include them in a floral arrangement.My husband says some kinds you can make bread with but he is not sure which kind so we have never tried it.

  2. As long as your confessing, I guess I will, too. This was the time of year I would drive my truck to work so I could ‘steal’ leaves on my lunch hour. I quit doing this a few years ago, but now I’ve read that chickens love to ‘play’ in piles of leaves and doing so will shred them for me. I guess I better gas up the truck………

  3. AWESOME POST!!! In Mississippi, I always used leaves in my garden between rows. I hardly has to pull any weeds. The soaker hoses were also under the leaves. I also used them in the flower beds as a mulch to help keep out the weeds, keep the soil cooler damper longer. In 2011, I actually raked a friends yard and hauled 76 HUGE bags of oak leaves from their ear to mine. No counting my own leaves. I thought I would never use that many, but I did by the end of 2012. Now I am using leaves from my dad’s Maples here in Missouri. He sucks them up with his riding mower and normally gives them to the cows. This year, they are mine!

  4. Great post; just one question, do your councils make compost with all the leaves and grass cutting that they collect, as in the UK or are they really waste which would be terrible.

  5. I believe confession is an important step towards rehabilitation Jason. 😉 You just have to be strong every time you pass a sack of leaves! We rake ours up and I spread some over the flower beds. The rest go on our garden path or on our compost heap in the former pond, which we don’t actually use as compost but it’s home to lots of creatures all year round! Do your store yours in sacks over winter too? It rots well in black plastic sacks.

    • Perhaps there is a 12 step program for leaf stealers. As you say, the first step is to admit you have a problem. I don’t use paper sacks to store leaves anymore because the squirrels tear off pieces of the paper to use in their nests.

  6. Yes! Back in the late 80s, I used to swipe bags of leaves in my Phinney Ridge neighbourhood in Seattle. I stopped after opening a couple of bags that smelled chemically toxic for some reason. Now I live where there are way more conifers than deciduous trees. I miss big swathes of fallen autumn leaves on the sidewalks.

  7. Yes, I’m into thievery, too. But for me it’s pine needles (got plenty of leaves of my own). The tennis courts across the way are fenced and bordered by pines. The needles fall on the courts, all clean, with nothing else mixed in. So I perform a valuable public service (that’s what I call it) for tennis players by raking them up, bagging them, and bringing them home. I use them as mulch (we have very alkaline soil in my area, so they add acidity as they decompose). 10 big bags waiting to be spread at the moment. Oh! and in the heat of the summer sun, they make the garden smell like a walk in a pine woods. It’s all good!

  8. I have a different brand of thievery! Whenever I’m at a nursery I search the ground for broken plant pieces…then I take them home and try to root them!

    I love your idea of stealing the neighbors’ yardwaste bags. People rummage through other recycling bins all the time, why not the leaves as well!?

    Entertaining post! 🙂

  9. Stealing leaves has crossed my mind too. Sometimes I just ask the neighbors to dump them in my yard, instead of on the curb for pickup. And yes, I own a power mower and shred them. Does that make me a bad person?

    • Hey, you should know I am not a guilt monger. I’m not opposed to power mowers, I just don’t like the noise and the gasoline smell. Also I have very little lawn so a push mower is easy to use. If I had a power mower I would shred the leaves also. So no, it doesn’t make you a bad person.

  10. Every year when the guys come to haul away the leaves I feel so guilty, but just haven’t figured out how to deal with them myself. That’s really sad, and even a tad embarrassing to admit 😦 This will be on the list for next year, since I know how beneficial they are for mulch and compost, both which I hate buying. Seems we used to keep them way back when, not sure why we stopped. Anyway, it’s good to read what everyone else does, helps me learn.

  11. When I lived in Massachusetts I used to take my neighbor’s bagged maple leaves to put in my compost pile. They compost down pretty quickly, even without being shredded. But here in Washington state, the biggest source of leaves in my own garden is an oak tree, and those leaves do not compost down so easily, and if left on the bed will smother my plants. I need to buy a shredder for them.

  12. Reading this post gave me a laugh. I know another blogger that did the same thing. I bet she quit too. On my street, with 90 foot high Norway Maples lining the street, never a need to take the bagged leaves here. I constantly get the leaves of all the neighbor’s trees blowing into the yard. I mulch them with the mulching mower before putting them in the compost. If not, the wet leaves mat together and make large gooey clumps of uncomposted leaves next Spring. The oak leaves (quite a few on the street too) are the ones that take forever to compost down (by nature’s design).

    • Yeah, those big maple leaves can be a problem. Fortunately in my yard the biggest trees are silver maple and Siberian elm, both of which have small leaves.

  13. Lol…..really enjoyed your confession! We have too many leaves to use them all. I do keep lots for the hedgehog piles and compost lots too, but forty big trees produce too much so the rest get composted by the Council.xxxx

  14. At our last house we composted the leaves of our huge Liriodendron along with grass clippings and weeds, etc. At this house we don’t have a composting system, so the leaves from our three big trees (and several neighbors’ pin oak trees) go in the green bin to be turned into compost by the city. Although I miss using my own compost, I don’t miss turning those heavy piles to hasten the compost process!

    • I wish our city still made compost, they don’t any more. I have two compost bins, but I don’t bother to turn them, so the composting is pretty slow.

  15. I also get leaves from the road on top of the ones I am given. But, as you say, there is just so much you can use.

  16. i do the same with mine that you do with yours but here, when leaves are taken away they go into a huge compost pile and the compost is free to residents. By the bucket or truck full.

  17. Funny story Jason, I used put leaves on the garden and they just blow away in our gusty windy area along with the mulch. Don’t forget to add some blood and bone or something similar to your leaf compost on the garden beds, as it is breaking down, as this process takes nutrients from the soil.

  18. So hard to resist free bags of soil amendments sitting on the side of the road! I still steal leaves occasionally but also have many of my own. I use a leaf blower to blow them from my paths into the flower beds or onto the lawn. I have an electric mulching mower which makes short work of the ones on the lawn. I bring bags home to put on my compost heap and to mulch around shrubs and larger grasses. I’ve also been known to have a shovel and supply of plastic bags in my car in case I see a “free manure” sign by the side of the road. Here’s to a life of crime.

    • I would love to have an electric mulching mower – does it really work? I bought an electric shredder and it was a bust. I got the sense that to have enough power you need a gas powered shredder, and I didn’t want to buy one.

  19. I’m with you on this one! I used to be such a perfectionist about raking up every last leaf, but now I gather most of them and add them to the forest floor. Whatever gathers on the flower beds stays until spring–even the big Oak leaves that take forever to decompose. Then I do rake them off in the spring. And some go to compost. It seems like many gardeners have figured this one out. But most don’t realize the true treasure that falls from their trees. No, I’ve never gathered other people’s leaves because I have 20-30 tarpsful (60 bags?) from my own Oak trees. Great post!

    • Hmm, sounds like you have enough leaves. But there are still too many people who consider leaves to be simply litter that needs to be cleaned up.

  20. Ha!!! You absolutely had me rolling with this one! Too funny!!!! Our city collects the bulk of them as well as branches for mulch for the following spring. We actually leave a bunch in the yard but I have removed them from some of the areas where i have baby plants growing. We aren’t neat freaks here! Just have to make a path for walking!!

  21. I totally agree with you. We have a big garden with lots of trees, and my leaves goes into the flowerbeds, some on the compost and I have also tried to put them in black plastic bags with tiny holes in, and then just leave them in a dark corner for a year or two. Then they turn into lovely mulch. I dont need to steal the neighbours leaves 🙂

  22. I wish I had somewhere out of sight to store them – I’d gladly take to stealing 😉
    We have a large birch that grows at the end of the street I’ve often thought of raking up the leaves.
    I enjoyed your tale Jason – made me smile, so thank you.

  23. Pinching other peoples leaves was something I used to do when I was younger. Most of mine that blow on my garden get left there- I certainly do not throw them away! We have some huge oak trees well away from my garden but on the windward side and are due to come down in my garden any time soon and they are a nuisance in my ponds
    My friend composts leaves fifty fifty with his lawn mowings and makes a wonderful potting compost with added slow release fertiliser

  24. What a fun read! Love the way you’ve encouraged all these confessions. I do like to use shredded leaves but we don’t have many deciduous trees in my yard so I’m limited. Wouldn’t like to bring in leaves from others’ yards–might be bringing in all kinds of undesirable seeds and weeds as well. Love the idea of community composting though. My former neighbor used to help me get compost made from vegetable waste gathered from local restaurants–made great compost.

    • The leaves do have plenty of weed seeds (especially maples!), but I figure there are already so many weeds sprouting it doesn’t make that much difference.

  25. Great idea, our local council collect green waste once a fortnight, but I keep almost all of mine to compost at home, except anything diseased. When the leaves fall I do go and “help myself”, as once rotted down it makes brilliant weed free potting compost, unlike my garden compost which is a great mulch but has lots of sometimes unwelcome seedlings in.

  26. Here the town picks up all those leaves, piles them up in giant mounds at their facility and lets them compost. When they are done, you can buy a truckload of town-composted black gold and have it delivered. There is cost involved (our taxes pay for pick up, and the homeowner who wants a load has to pay to get the compost) but it’s great system. And the compost I have gotten has been good quality.

    • I am so mad that a handful of local people who want to sterilize everything got our town to stop its composting program. It was great free compost, all you had to do was take it away!

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