Gravestones and Garden Prep

As fall comes and my mind turns to preparing my garden, I start jealously eying my neighbors’ yards. While some people lust after the perfect green lawn, I have a different target in mind – their leaves. My historic neighborhood is full of tall deciduous trees that shed their leaves in preparation for the coming season. Of course, most people treat this biological bounty as a nuisance, sweeping them into the street or bagging them for the city to pick up. While I desperately need leaves for my lasagna gardening, my yard has exactly one deciduous tree that produces surprisingly few leaves. As a result, I must search for alternative sources.

The first year of lasagna gardening, I picked up random branches with leaves on them from the street. As I compiled my layers, I quickly realized that this method was impractical. For one, I’m only capable of carrying so many branches and I looked silly to boot. More importantly, I could never get enough leaves this way. The labor to harvest ratio was not in my favor.

So I turned to a slightly more gothic source – the nearby cemetery. My house backs up to a large working cemetery that’s run by a local church. While their maintenance people encroach on my yard more than I would prefer, I usually don’t give it a second thought. But in the fall, its numerous trees create a paradise of organic matter.

Considering my need and their excess, I figured I’d solve my issue while doing a bit of valuable public service. After all, the more leaves I rake up and haul away, the less the church needs to. In fact, they probably pay to have the city take them away, so I’m saving them both time and money.

The graveyard near my house

But it’s never that simple. While my rule-following nature usually guides me well, it complicated this task. While there’s nothing illegal about raking up leaves in a cemetery for your own use (as far as I know), something about carting my wheelbarrow back and forth just felt inappropriate. The first two years, I soothed my weirded-out conscience by gathering leaves near the road, which wasn’t quite in the cemetery proper. But this year, Hurricane Sandy swept away most of those leaves, leaving the large bulk among the gravestones. Last weekend, I convinced myself of its public service nature, wheeled over my equipment and went to work.

But my bizarro guilt caught up with me. As I was busily raking next to a gravestone with an illegible engraving, a woman in a pink skirt around my age walked by. Much to my surprise, she said, “Hello, I’m visiting my mother’s grave.” I stuttered out a response resembling, “Hello, uh, that’s nice.” Unfortunately, she continued. “Would you like any help?” I looked up wide-eyed (maybe a little scary looking) and replied, “Thanks, but no. I’m good. Really.” It took all my self-control not to babble, “I’m not the groundskeeper but I’m just getting leaves for my garden and that’s totally allowed and please don’t tell on me!” And yet…she continued. “My grandmother’s grave is there – my family is buried here,” she said, pointing at the nearby plot. Running out of coherent phrases, I said, “I’ll try to rake the leaves around it.” She finally wandered over to her mother’s plot, leaving me to finally exhale. I piled the leaves I had been raking into my wheelbarrow and hid in my garden for the next few minutes. On an intellectual level, I don’t think she would have done anything if she realized I wasn’t a groundskeeper. However, my nerves were whispering a different story.

Weirdly, Chris was totally cool with it all. Of the two of us, he’s usually the one who’s less likely to take social risks. But in this situation, he didn’t bother pretending to be official. Instead, he took the most efficient route. He brought our big tarp over to the cemetery, piled about four wheelbarrows-full worth of leaves on it, and dragged it back to our yard. While he agreed that it was rather conspicuous, he also made the valid point that using the tarp a couple of times probably attracted less attention than my many back-and-forth journeys.

So now between the tarp and wheelbarrow, we have about a foot of leaves in our garden. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite enough, so I’ll have to venture back over to the cemetery this weekend. Thankfully, the trees there shed so much that the ones I take won’t even be noticed. (I hope.)

Have you ever gone to weird lengths to procure materials for your garden or other sustainability project?

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8 Responses to Gravestones and Garden Prep

  1. J.A.B. says:

    I just calmly walked across the street and took bags left out for the trashmen — after verifying that the bags contained only leaves.

    Nowadays our neighbor picks up lake muck with his front-end loader for me — but I get much less sand with it if I fetch it with the wheelbarrow.

    • Shannon says:

      I would have totally swiped my neighbor’s bags of leaves, except that most people in our neighborhood just sweep them into the street. Because the town comes around with a leaf vacuum, putting them in bags just creates an extra step for both the homeowner and the recycling workers. I considered getting them out of the street, but I didn’t want to put all of the run-off from the street (with the chemicals that come with it) in my garden.

  2. John says:

    When I was in high school living in Albany, my dad sent me over to Mrs. Murphy’s house to help her rake leaves. She was nearly 80 years old and was slogging away raking leaves on a big burlap tarp. Ever since I’ve owned a home here in Virginia, I use the tarp method. I run my lawn mower over the big leaf pile behind my shed in my back yard to help things along. The whole process is so much easier than bagging. It’s a mystery to me why more people don’t compost their leaves.

    • Shannon says:

      I expected all of the leaves to fall off of the tarp, but it ended up being surprisingly effective. As for why more people don’t compost their leaves, it’s the same reason a lot of people bag their cut grass – they think it looks “messy.” What’s ironic is that they’re basically taking away organic matter that they’re going to pay a lot of money to partly restore through fertilizer.

  3. Jean says:

    I like the term lasagna gardening. I can see how uncomfortable you were raking leaves and then someone visiting a loved one’s grave.

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