The Carbon Thief



When I was 23 and living in New York City, I had a new boyfriend who loved upstate New York, the well-preserved old towns where nothing of significance had happened in the last hundred years, the poverty, the natural beauty.

We would head out of the city in his car, an ancient and beat-up Chrysler convertible, while he desultorily shopped for a old house for himself in the various counties north of Westchester.  He knew a lot about architecture and he soon taught me enough that I could read a landscape in an entirely different way.  I no longer saw a collection of houses, I saw history.  Funny how a little bit of knowledge can transform the way you see the world around you.

Something similar happened to me in my garden half a dozen years ago.  I stopped tilling my vegetable garden and started mulching it heavily with ground up maple leaves and lawn clippings.  And the transformation of my soil into devil's food cake with an icing of worm castings was so dramatic that I became curious about the biology of the soil and learned something about that, as well as a little about the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle.  Not enough to be really authoritative on these subjects, but enough to view the entire world differently.

Now, I never look at a photo of a landscape parched by drought without seeing a dire lack of carbon covering the bare earth, either in the form of living plants or a dead mulch.

Now, I can't look at a pile of brush or fall leaves without seeing the key to life there, fodder for earthworms, and fungi, and soil bacteria, who will convert it into fertlizer for my crops.

I don't understand why anybody would send such a lovely bunch of carbon–or a lovely pile of nitrogen in the form of grass clippings–off his or her property.  Yes, my city composts this stuff.  But no, I'm not generous enough to share.  I want it all in MY garden.

And if my neighbors are willing to rake these riches out of their flowerbeds and off the lawn and set them at the curb in brown bags–well, I'm willing to be the town eccentric, wheeling her barrow down the street in order to collect it all.

I may look like a crazy person, but that's only to those people whose eyes are not yet open. 


  1. Up until about the age of six, my children thought it was perfectly normal to pull their little red wagon down to the cemetary and sweep up all the pine needles on the public sidewalk for the blueberry bushes mulch. Within a few years they were begging me to do it after dark by myself so none of their friends could see their crazy mom. Now that they are adults they just roll their eyes and humor me.

  2. Our house is surrounded by cedar trees so we get very few leaves to add to our compost. I used to be the one driving around filling up the van with bags of neighbours’ raked-up leaves.

    Then something truly shocking happened. Word got around about us and a lady offered to PAY us to come and get her leaves. A dollar per bag for over a hundred bags! She has a beautiful cottage property and they rake the leaves every year.

    This has been going on for years now. I actually worry about the soil at her place being deprived of the nutrients that should be returning to it.

    At my acre-size plot, I choose an out of the way spot to dump them. The leaves smother the weeds and enrich the soil and look not-bad while they’re doing it. After a year or two, when I’m ready to plant there, I have a beautiful, crumbly, wormy bed to plant in.

    And if I have a bed that is infested with something (ie. goutweed), I pile leaves on it in spring, a foot deep. Then the following spring, the goutweed’s gone and the soil is better.

    Not only am I a carbon thief, I’m being paid to be one.

  3. My community rakes their leaves onto the road to be picked up by a sweeper. I’m the one out there with the wheelbarrow scooping up everyone’s leaves and dumping them on to my garden. The new neighbour asked me if I have a composter. I told her that I did but these were going directly on my garden. They are the best soil conditioner you can get and it’s free for the taking.

    I used to go to the neighbouring town and fill up my van with their bags of leaves, but my current street has enough for me.

  4. “I’m willing to be the town eccentric, wheeling her barrow down the street in order to collect it all.”

    Same here! I did that last week, in fact. My compost heap would be a paltry one if I didn’t.

  5. I, too, gather others’ leaves that have been left out for the trash…but I have a new question this year that you can, perhaps, help me with: Should I be worrying about the use of imidacloprid (spelling?), the systemic Bayer Tree and Shrub insecticide, in the leaves that I gather? I sure don’t want to be shutting down insect populations in my compost and/or mulch.

  6. I’ve done the wheelbarrow thing, too. Especially when I was smothering swathes of grass for new and expanded beds.
    I prefer to mow leaves on the lawn directly into the grass. Leaves that fall in the beds, I let lay. Leaves from the sidewalk go into the chicken runs.

  7. Yes, yes, yes! For the longest, my friends were bringing me their leaves until they too got turned on to benefits and now they keep them. I’ve made soil from leaf mulch and compost and I have very happy plants.

  8. Just the other day my neighbor threw Boston ferns out on the curb in some black trash bags. I got them in the middle of the night and threw them in the compost.

    I’m still looking for someone who rakes leaves. I might offer to rake my older neighbor’s leaves so that I can take them home with me.

  9. I wouldn’t touch city compost, because I’d have no idea what was in it that *I* won’t have in my garden, as Gaia Gardener above, worries.

    What bugs me is the retail spaces where some firm installs and manages the plants in huge containers, or even in the ground, if there is any.

    One day, there are perfectly healthy plants that have been there for a few years, that you enjoy seeing, and suddenly, overnight, they’ve changed.

    One day in October, I went to get my latte and something from the store, and I see a pickup truck with lots of plants in the back. Then I see one of the containers having its rosetree removed. I asked what was going on, and the gentleman said something lame about unhealthy plants needing to be removed. I asked if I could take the rose tree home, and he shrugged yes. I got my latte, did my other errand, and I see a second rosetree coming out, with a similar sized geranium alongside the first, on the ground.

    I went home with two rose trees (red, not very scented) for my seamstress, and a geranium for my mother in law. I almost felt as if I’d rescued a stray cat or dog from the pound. I wish I’d had the time to collect more, but I also didn’t have that much room in my van.

  10. Got a chuckle out of this because in fall I feel like the “bag lady” of the neighborhood. And there’s an urgency to get them before the city truck comes trolling thru the streets to suck up “my” leaves. Question for you leaf gatherers: when you get whole leaves do you use them without grinding them up? I prefer the ones already mulched but have found that the grass clippings mixed in with them often come from homes that hire firms that use herbicides on their lawns. So I’ve become picky about my scavenging .

  11. Oriole, in my vegetable garden, I plan on using them whole. Weed control is part of the program, so I’ll just brush them aside to expose a row for planting.

    Gaia Gardener, I don’t know how many ordinary homeowners are spraying their trees and shrubs in your part of the world. Yikes!!! One wonders what the point of that is–if it needs to be sprayed, get rid of it!

    I’m stealing leaves from my neighbors–I tend to choose the ones with sloppy yards where it looks like nobody bothers to use chemicals.

  12. You go!

    I’m down a long gravel drive in a rural area, so I don’t see bags of leaves lurking, waiting for someone to swoop on them. Darn.

    On the bright side, the trees on the property drop so many directly into the flowerbeds that my winter mulch is more of a token effort.

  13. A. Marina: I always use the leaves whole. I know they break down faster if you chop them up, but I’m just too lazy to do that. In the spring, I rake them away if needed and add them to the compost at that point.

  14. Leaves, leaves, leaves….. tonnes of them at the moment. We are filling our compost bins at the moment every weekend with them (nature’s organic compost!!).
    I like the chicken photos, my husband wants chickens, but I have had to say no as I do not think the neighbours would approve of the noise.

  15. As a matter of fact, I have three neighboring homes whose yards I rake at no charge so that I can have access to their leaves and garden clippings.

    I perform a service and get paid with stuff that they would have been willingly tossing. Don’t you think that’s a win … win situation?

  16. Chalk this up as another reason to keep my old beat up Toyota pick up!

    I’m so glad these comments don’t include home addresses, otherwise a lot of you would be heading over to my house. I bought this old house on the edge of the city almost two years ago. The yard is mostly bare of trees but across the driveway is acres and acres of forest owned by the state and not sprayed or managed in any way. I had planned on spending this time of year over there raking and bagging fallen leaves but when snooping around I found a massive pile of perfectly rotted leaves that my neighbor drags with a tractor into the woods to keep them from piling up in front of his house. We are talking a leaf mountains about 10 feet tall and about 30 feet long. He’s been dragging and mounding for many many years. Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, all mine!

  17. My neighbor asked me the other day if I wanted her leaves. I told her of course and just throw them over the fence. I think she is going to have her son rake them and somehow get them to me – I can’t wait.

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