Shredding leaves

We have splurged on a gadget that pulverizes leaves. We can now transform what many people throw away into a useful garden product.

This Worx electric leaf shredder really tears them apart. It cost us $120 online, and smashes the leaves with tiny strings that go round and round, like a weed-whacker. There’s a place to put a plastic bag underneath to catch the torn-apart leaves.

img_20161114_085200565We tried out the machine yesterday. We had raked our leaves into a big pile, which was supplemented with those of a kindly neighbor. We put on ear protectors, goggles and dust masks and scooped up the leaves  by hand and loaded them in.

The biggest problem we encountered was sticks. Where there are leaves, there are likely to be sticks, and it’s difficult to find and discard all of them. So periodically we turned off the machine and fished them out.

img_20161114_092253707_hdrWhen shredded, leaves shrink to about a tenth of their volume. We filled about seven big  plastic bags, but since we want to reuse them, we transferred the ground-up leaves to 24 smaller plastic bags that will be easier to lug around.

We will use the leaf-pieces through the winter to mix with kitchen waste and make compost, and then next spring and summer as mulch. I put a six-inch layer of ground-up leaves on our carrot and leek bed, and the insulation will extend the harvest. I put some directly on a bed where I grow tomatoes, to break down over the winter. Worms love shredded leaves.

img_20161114_092333620_hdrWe’ve always gathered and used leaves, but unpulverized they slow the composting process, matting down and preventing air and water from penetrating. Shredding increases their surface area, giving microbes more space to do their work. Leaves lighten up heavy soils and provide gardens with calcium, magnesium and trace minerals that trees dig up from deep in the ground.

We may try our hand at making leaf mold. This couldn’t be easier: You rake ground-up leaves into a pile, give them some water and let them sit there covered for a year. Fungi turn them into a substance that smells like the forest floor. Placed in a garden, leaf mold helps soil retain water in a drought and stay cool in a heat wave.

Leaves are beautiful to look at in New England in October, and in November we’re turning them into a free garden resource.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick summary of about 150 past posts, broken down into 12 categories, including frugality, gardening, simple living, cooking and living without. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.


Signs of Spring

At last, Spring is here. Every day brings some new indicator of the turning of the seasons.


The spring bulbs have been eagerly pushing up through the leafy mulch. Snowdrops are past their prime now, as are the early crocuses.  The tiny blue scilla and the late crocuses are emerging and the first daffodil is beginning to unfold.



Our low-lying yard has its seasonal “water feature” after the heavy rains last week.  It is always interesting to note how much longer “Lake Eames” sticks around in the early spring than in the summer, when the trees and green plants suck up moisture and transpire  water vapor through their leaves.  Plus, warm weather speeds up evaporation.  But in the spring, these reflecting pools linger for weeks.  This week I saw a robin splashing  in the water’s shallow edge.

March has been so warm that we have often been able to leave the window open a little at night. I love waking up to the familiar bird songs.  I don’t know who is making all the different chirps, flutes, warbles and trills, but I know they are old friends. As are the amphibians who have been peeping and quacking their way through the warmer days and nights.  This spring is far from silent, and I am filled with gratitude toward Rachel Carson and other defenders of this intricate and cacophonous web of life.

The furry wildlife are newly active;  neighbors have seen a fox and a woodchuck. Friday morning, when I went out to empty the compost bucket, I saw another sign of spring.IMG_20160318_120903740

The black bears have emerged from hibernation, it appears, and for the first time, paid a visit to our bird feeder (as well as those of three neighbors up the hill).  Sorry birds, you’ll have to fend for yourselves until next December.

IMG_20160318_122603654More indicators of spring’s imminent arrival are the emerging buds and blossoms on our shrubs, such as the witch hazel,  which has been showing its fragrant yellow threads for weeks. The blossom tips of serviceberry and flowering quince are poking out, and today I saw red maple trees in bloom.


This week I discovered the first leaves of many perennial plants unfolding from the dark earth. Near the pools at the north end of the yard were numerous clumps of marsh marigolds, all descended from one ancestor I purchased at the Amherst Garden Club sale many years ago.

IMG_20160318_121026469The  stinging nettles are up, but in a new spot.  I may have to transplant those before they get tall this summer, and,  leaning toward the light, extend over the path and sting our bare legs.The first sweet cicely plant is unfurling and the red clover and chives are emerging in the fenced vegetable garden.IMG_20160318_121111755

This week I participated in another rite of spring, and another sign of new life and hope. It was a protest march through several Franklin County towns called Taking Steps to a Renewable Future.  Our church’s Earth Ministry Team co-sponsored this event and six adult members and two of our children have shown up. We don’t want any new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines like the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline, which appears to be intended to bring fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to the coast for export. And we certainly don’t want to pay for it. Instead, we want to phase out fossil fuel use and to invest in a rapid deployment of renewable energy, conservation and energy efficiency. The climate clock is ticking, and so the turnout of at least 200 people, young and old, was heartening.IMG_20160319_104030824_HDR





Don’t blow it!

As we savor the glorious color of New England in autumn, an obnoxious machine can disrupt our enjoyment.

Leafblowers are so noisy, wasteful and unhealthy that their use should be restricted or banned. Hundreds of communities have done so, including liberal strongholds like Cambridge and Berkeley, and it’s time for Amherst to consider such action.

It’s hard to miss the noise of a leafblower. Gas-powered ones put out between 90 and 100 decibels; the EPA says anything over 75 can cause hearing loss. Even the manufacturers say that anyone within 50 feet of a leafblower should wear ear protection.leafblower

These machines, which create hurricane-force winds, do more than move leaves around. They can pick up dust, topsoil, animal waste, fungi, herbicides and tiny microbes and send them swirling into the air.

These allergens and toxins can be harmful to breathe, especially for children. The American Lung Association recommends that people avoid leafblowers.

The engines in gas-powered leafblowers are inefficient, and spew hazardous compounds into the air, such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons, according to the EPA. They put out more pollution than a 6,200-pound Ford F150 truck, adding to the problem of climate change.

The people most at risk from leafblowers are the ones who use them. Employees of landscape contractors should be provided with equipment to protect their eyes and lungs as well as their ears.

But really, why do so many people hire these landscapers? Leafblowers didn’t exist before the 1970s, and before then we survived quite nicely with rakes and brooms. Clearing one’s yard of leaves with rakes can be a pleasant chore.

We look upon leaves not as a waste product to get rid of but as an important constituent of our compost piles and thus our garden’s fertility. We willingly accept leaves that a neighbor provides us and bag them for future use in compost.

There are many options for restricting leafblowers. Cambridge limits their use to certain times of day. Berkeley banned them altogether long ago. Scarsdale, N.Y. restricts their noise to 75 decibels. Los Angeles and Aspen allow only electric leafblowers, which are quieter and less polluting than gas-powered ones.

Some might say, “Are we going to ban chainsaws next?” But the difference in productivity between a chainsaw and a hand saw is much greater than the difference between a leafblower and a rake. (We use an electric chainsaw.) Some tests have even shown rakes to be faster than leafblowers.

How about it, Amherst? Are we ready to reclaim the serenity of autumn, freed from the noise and pollution of leafblowers?

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of 140 past posts in 13 categories, including frugality, simple living, gardening, living without, cooking and climate change.


Stone soul playground

IMG_20150929_125909946I have been having fun for the last few weeks, playing with stones.

IMG_20150826_115751246_HDRThis outburst of rocky recreation was occasioned by the replacement of our old crumbling-asphalt driveway with a gravel driveway that can accommodate both our car and the cars of our tenants. The construction of that new feature on our homestead was made easier —IMG_20150826_115807088 no, actually, made possible — by big, noisy machines running on fossil fuels, our “energy slaves.” No one in business around here harnesses the amount of human or animal muscle power needed to dig, haul and spread all that material.

But in the aftermath of this project, I found a playground for my human capacities for imagination, design and hand/muscle work.

IMG_20150928_163613810First I fit together flat expanses of flagstones to create a patio under our kiwi trellis and walkways from front door to new driveway. Making these intricate jigsaw puzzles of rock had me on my knees for days. (Thank you, trusty foam kneeling pad!) We used the existing materials we had on hand,  and then seated them in the stone dust left over from the driveway project.

IMG_20150928_163627461The greatest challenge was moving the gigantic flat stones that  it once took three strong young men to bring down from the old family homestead in Deerfield. Moving these stones required Nick and me to utilize the utmost capacity of our backs and muscles to lever the smaller stone onto the wheelbarrow and move it into place.  The second was even bigger and heavier, so we resorted to rolling the stone into place on a series of round poles. This engineering method probably erected the pyramids, the stone circles of Britain and the gigantic stone heads of Easter Island.

IMG_20150928_163726280The next phase of my stone play involved building walls to serve as tree wells to protect trees from the higher ground level of the new driveway.  IMG_20150928_163800293I built a wall around the sugar maple tree using thick concrete chunks we had been given years ago, now re-purposed from an old pathway.  The tree well protecting the pear tree I built of field stones, many of which we had dug up from this property over the years. They were originally part of stone walls that my father, Carl Krogh, helped me build when we first moved to this house in the 1980’s (shown in photo).

IMG_20150929_094217842I  felt my father’s spirit enlivening me as I lugged and fitted together the stones.  He loved to work around his yard, and built many beautiful stone walls over the years. I feel like an inheritor of his love of stonework and digging and other muscular yardwork.

IMG_20150928_163647649The last two stone projects I’ve completed, like the maple tree well, involve recycled “urbanite.” That term is sometimes used to describe the chunks of hard and durable human-made material, like concrete and asphalt, that result when old roads, sidewalks and buildings are replaced. IMG_20150928_164021865I used two large concrete hunks to fashion steps up to one of our rain barrels, and used some of the larger asphalt pieces to extend a paved pathway back to our bike shed. “Urbanite” isn’t as beautiful as real stone, but the price is right, and its productive use avoids adding it to the waste stream.

So I’ve been having loads of fun, but I realize that those who construct hardscaping for a living might  see this work from another angle.  Robert Frost addresses this in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

Out of the woods two hulking tramps

(From sleeping God knows where last night,

But not long since in the lumber camps).

They thought all chopping was theirs of right….

Nothing on either side was said.

They knew they had but to stay their stay

And all their logic would fill my head:

As that I had no right to play

With what was another man’s work for gain.

My right might be love but theirs was need.

And where the two exist in twain

Theirs was the better right — agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of our past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, living without, cooking, gardening and climate change.


Goats for rent

IMG_20150713_095557707We had seven guests staying in our back yard last week. We put them to work clearing away invasive plants during their six-day visit, and they did a great job.

They weren’t campers. They were goats. We hired them from a local business called Goat Girls because the marshy land north of our vegetable garden had become an impenetrable thicket of multiflora rose, bittersweet, swamp dogwood, honeysuckle and glossy buckthorn. These plants had taken over the back third of our yard and were coming for our garden.

IMG_20150708_091123219Joe Willie of Goat Girls put up a nylon electric fence to enclose the area we wanted cleared. Then he and his daughter brought in the goats: Dan, Crumpet, Tumbleweed, Amethyst, Rose, Ivy and 4-month-old Munchkin. They tromped in and went immediately to work, chomping  and trampling the vegetation.

IMG_20150708_093822130All we had to do was give them water twice a day and occasionally splash them with insect spray. And we had to make sure not to touch the electrified fence, which keeps the goats safe from predators like coyotes. Joe came by every day to make sure the goats were OK, and he moved the fence one time to give them new land to conquer.

It was fun watching the goats go about their business. When I mentioned to friends that we had rented goats, I realized that the enterprise had a very high “cool” factor. And we were able to rid our yard of those invasive nasties without using herbicides or fossil fuels.

When people asked how much it cost, I was tempted to say, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” The total charge was $575.

IMG_20150708_081749551Goat Girls was founded in 2010 by Hope Crolius, an old friend and newspaper colleague. Using goats to clear land is common in the West, and on the East Coast people are realizing the value of these prodigious weed-whackers. The Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst hired the Goat Girls to get rid of poison ivy on their trails, and some people use them to clear land where they want to start a garden. The Goat Girls even eat Christmas trees!

IMG_20150713_095654943The back part of our property is visible once again. We can now encourage useful or beautiful plants like ostrich fern, elderberry and fuki, along with the existing oak, willow, red maple and tamarack trees. There’s still work to do clipping and hauling the woody stalks of the invasive plants, and hacking them down when they grow back. But it is pleasing to see a longer vista out our kitchen window instead of a solid wall of  jungle vegetation.

The Goat Girls definitely earned their keep!

For new readers of this blog, here’s a handy index of more than 120 past posts, separated into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, fruits & vegetables, life lessons and climate change.