One BIG pile of leaves

Who wants to take the easy road in life? I for one enjoy a good challenge, which is why my husband and I decided to list our home for sale this year in June when absolutely no one in the entire United States of America would have any interest whatsoever in purchasing it. Have you ever tried to keep your house immaculate for three and a half months straight? It was hard enough keeping up with the pet fur that accumulates like tumbleweed in the corners of our living room and stairwell, but now that it’s fall, we’ve got a horde of box elder bugs coating the sunny side of the house, and a whole woods full of trees bound and determined to bury our house in their lost foliage.

I’ve spent the past two weeks sweeping leaves off the deck before driving to work in the morning, and nearly snatched up a tree frog by accident when picking leaves off of our patio table one dark morning. It was like a duck, duck, goose game gone wrong. Brown leaf, brown leaf…ACK! Not a brown leaf.

I know I’m not the only one groaning in agony each time a gust of wind knocks another fistful of leaves to the ground. The fall colors in Minnesota are truly breathtaking, but it sure would be nice if the leaves could stay up there where they belong. We Minnesotans have weary arms and shoulders, and the wooden rake handles are giving our poor hands blisters. In recent years, I’ve adopted a lazy-man’s strategy of running the lawn mower across the lawn a few times each fall to chop up the leaves and then letting them decompose naturally over the course of the winter.

Unfortunately, this same strategy can’t be used for leaves in the street. Organic waste like leaves, grass clippings, dirt, seeds and twigs is high in phosphorus, a naturally occurring element that helps plants to grow. When these materials break down in a wooded area, they provide a boost of nutrients to feed trees and other plants in the spring. When the leaves and other yard waste breaks down on pavement, however, these nutrients are instead washed into storm sewers that connect quickly to nearby lakes and streams. From there, the nutrients feed algae, which makes our blue lakes green.

This year, the Freshwater Society has launched an initiative called Community Clean-ups for Water Quality, which encourages citizens to help keep lakes and rivers clean by removing leaves and other debris from city streets during the fall and spring when this debris poses the biggest threat to our waterways. According to their calculations, just five garbage bags full of organic debris can contain one pound of phosphorus, which in turn translates into 500 pounds of algae in a lake or river. Between 2003 and 2009, Community Clean-up volunteers in the Minnesota River Valley collected enough debris to prevent 8,400 pounds of phosphorus from running off into the Minnesota River. That’s the equivalent of more than 4 million pounds of algae!

Now the Freshwater Society is hoping to take Community Clean-ups statewide. They are encouraging people to participate in one of two ways. First, they are asking people to sweep and rake the leaves and dirt from their own driveways and curb lines. This debris can either be composted at home or brought to a community compost site. Second, the Freshwater Society is working with cities, churches, scout groups and other volunteers to organize neighborhood cleanups during the month of October. They have created a comprehensive Community Clean-ups Toolkit, which includes everything a group might need to get started, from sign-up sheets, to promotional flyers and even door hangers. They have also created a web page to track participating groups and the number of bags of debris that each group collects.

I’m not sure that Community Clean-ups will help me to sell my house this fall, but this volunteer led initiative is sure to benefit the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers next year. If you are interested in organizing a clean-up group from your neighborhood, church or youth group, project coordinator Jenna Caywood (, 651-487-8648) would be happy to assist you. You can also visit to learn more or register a group. Or, if you’ve been battling the leaves at home like me and would really like some recognition for your back-breaking efforts, you can visit the same website to report the number of bags of debris you’ve collected from your own curb and street as well. We can’t stop the leaves from falling, but if we all chip in, we can keep one big pile of leaves from mucking up our waterways.