This year, signs of fall started appearing in our part of Vermont around early September: splashes of colored leaves in the trees, the apple orchard open for business, the grocery store’s Back-to-School display gradually giving way to Halloween. The sunlight turned a deeper gold, and the nights became crisp enough to sleep under the comforter. As the month wore on, squirrels and chipmunks got busy in our yard laying aside acorns for the winter – and driving our dog to fits of frenzied barking at the windows. Channeling my own inner chipmunk, I started baking like a maniac.
The last week of September was glorious: the mountaintops were red-orange, and driving home each afternoon I felt like I was living inside a scenic Vermont calendar. Tour buses full of “leaf peepers” pulled into town; tour groups of fluorescent-spandexed bikers made driving backcountry roads an exercise in caution. The foliage wasn’t quite at its peak, but clearly we were in for some spectacular color over the next couple of weeks.
On October 2, I woke up and noticed that there were leaves covering the ground.
[Cue sound effect: brakes squealing as my fall euphoria turned to realism]. Oh, right…RAKING.
We live in the woods, where there are a lot of leaves. When we first saw our house, it was March and there were no leaves on the trees; we were thrilled with how lovely and “natural” the yard looked. By the time we moved in, in June, we realized that our new house was surrounded by so many densely-leaved trees that almost no direct sunlight reached the ground. This is great in the summer, because it means no lawn to mow: we can’t grow grass. But guess what does reach the ground come fall? Leaves.
Three years into our Vermont life, and we still have no good leaf management plan. Bagging them up to dispose of them isn’t an easy option; our local waste management company doesn’t do curbside pickup of yard waste, so we’d have to load up our car with hundreds of bags and drive to the transfer station. Burning, which is allowed here, seems like a bad idea with so many trees and children close at hand. The best option is to rake or blow them back into the woods.
Both methods are exhausting. Raking obviously involves elbow grease: We pile the leaves onto a tarp, and then lug the tarp out into the woods to dump. It’s also depressing; each tarp-full clears roughly five square feet of space on our lawn.
Blowing isn’t much better. It may be that we don’t have the highest quality blower; I feel like I’m battling our leaves armed with a hair dryer. In order to get them moving at all, I have to wait until conditions are just right: no wind, and the leaves have to be totally dry. Those conditions occur about once every Vermont fall. And even under favorable conditions, it’s noisy, frustrating work to blow all of those leaves in the same direction. It’s worse than a shopping trip with all four of my kids.
So our usual method of leaf removal is “The Grandfather Plan.” It goes like this: We wait until either my father or father-in-law is paying us a fall visit. Then, at a moment when all four of our children are throwing simultaneous tantrums, we stare at the grandfather in question with overwhelmed expressions and say, “You know what would be really helpful? See all those leaves?”
We’re fortunate to have two able-bodied and willing-to-help grandfathers in our lives right now. But of course, we can’t depend on them to take care of our entire leaf problem. First, as grownups, we need to take personal responsibility for our own yard. Second -- and more important -- there’s the issue of timing: When do we rake?
The timing issue is tricky. Rake too early, and you’ll be cursing every leaf that falls for weeks to come – all of those subsequent leaves that force you outside with the rake and the tarp again and again. But rake too late, and you’re in for an equally frustrating task: feet upon feet of soggy, heavy leaves to pile and lug. As with most things, there’s a middle ground, a sweet spot when the raking is easy enough and won’t have to be repeated for months.
We haven’t mastered that sweet spot yet, so we watch the neighbors. There’s usually one weekend each fall when everybody is suddenly out in their yards pursuing leaf removal, and that’s when we try to tackle our own yard.
It’s like a seasonal game of leaf raking chicken. Come to think of it, at around the same time we play a similar game of wood stove chicken. (Yes, we have a wood stove. How do we manage to stack seven cords of wood each spring for our wood stove? See “The Grandfather Plan.”)
There’s usually a night in early fall when the temperature dips low enough, and the house has cooled off enough, to justify the first wood stove fire of the season. This year, that night has come and gone. When it arrived, we debated whether or not to start the stove. “Fi-re! Fi-re!” my daughters chanted. My husband looked at me and said, “Could you just check Facebook and see if XXX’s wife said anything about him starting their wood stove?”
XXX is one of the people my husband considers to be a model of Vermont toughness, and to start our wood stove before he does would be a display of embarrassing weakness.
It’s like they say: Pride cometh during the fall. Or something like that.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.