Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Leaf Pile - Burn or Compost?

Burning leaf pile. Click on photos to enlarge.
Yankee Candle has scented candles that go by 'Autumn Leaves.' A company named CB Experience makes a Burning Leaves perfume. Another has a product called Bonfire. Reviews are mixed - some describe the perfumes as having a liquid smoke or barbecue odor, with too-sweet overtones - while others reminisce on memories of camping trip fires or the childhood smells of burning leaves as an integral part of memories of fall.

Mind you, the smell of leaves burning is not the same as wood smoke. Leaves have a higher moisture and tannin content compared to seasoned wood, so the experience is smokier and more astringent, although not necessarily acrid unless the pile is wetter than it should be.   

Smoky leaf pile burn
Nowadays residents of Massachusetts do not burn leaves in the fall. It's illegal. In fact, we rarely burn anything outdoors. Massachusetts state law stipulates that outdoor burning of brush can take place January 15 through May 1 with a requirement for a permit from local fire department, plus permission from the MA Department of Environmental Protection via a call to the Air Quality Hotline. Open burning must be a minimum of 75 feet from all buildings and must be conducted between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Even with all these stipulations met, if a neighbor complains, the fire department will ask that the fire be extinguished. For details, see: 

Per that state law, Massachusetts does not allow leaf burning at any time. Ditto grass, hay or stumps, or pressure-treated wood, or any wood with paint, or construction debris, the reason being that these fuels do not burn as cleanly as brush, branches and trees.   

As to why open air burning has become a no-no, when plant material is burned, much of it is converted to water and carbon dioxide. These are not local pollutants, although the latter contributes to global warming. However, incompletely combusted material becomes carbon monoxide, smoke and ash - all dangerous to people with asthma or other respiratory diseases. Too many leaf fires on a still air day will reduce visibility, resulting in a higher risk of car accidents. People will smell smoke and call police/fire responders, wasting their time on false alarms. More seriously, flyaway embers can cause forest and house fires.
Two leaf composting containers, plus dirt pile to layer into the new leaves.
In background is a brush pile  - too woody to compost on site - so trucked
away every other year to a commercial composting center. 

If not to burn, what? Composting on your own property works, but it means dedicating part of the yard to this unsightly process. Consider hiring a yard clean-up service, either for an annual fall rake-out, or year-round mowing and maintenance. What they haul away ends up either in landfill or composted. What you should not do is dump leaves and yard waste in the woods behind your house, as A) not your property, and B) you will be creating a fuel pile for a forest fire that could threaten yours and others' property.  

For Maynard, all those thousands and thousands of bags of leaves and sticks left curbside last month were hauled away by E.L. Harvey & Sons via a town contract. According to the Harvey & Sons website, the company is a full service waste hauling, transfer and scrap recycling operation, founded in 1911 by Emory Larkin Harvey and existing this day as a fourth generation family owned business.

Hardware stores such as Lowe's sell paper bags for fall
leaves. The bags are made from recycled paper. There is
no truth to the rumor that the bags are made from leaves. 
Our yard waste is trucked to their headquarters site in Westborough, MA, where it is composted to become topsoil. The process involves shredding, mixing with a nitrogen source such as manure, grass clippings or previously composted soil, dampening with water, then using huge front-end loaders to turn/mix the piles about once a month. This routine keeps the oxygen- and water-requiring bacteria happy, and results in 100 cubic yards of leaves being converted into 25 cubic yards of compost in 10-12 months. The process generates so much heat that it continues all winter.

By the way, calling the season "fall" came about in Britain in the sixteenth century, and refers to the observation that this is the time of year that leaves fall off trees. Really. Prior to that the season was autumn, borrowed from France (automne) and stemming from the Latin, autumus. Or else just referred to as "harvest." Of the season names, summer and winter go back more than 1,000 years, whereas spring and fall, date to half that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Maynard: Things to do Outdoors in Winter

Visit a pond: Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond in a one-room cabin of his own design and construction from July 1845 to September 1847. His experience at Walden provided the material for his book, which is credited with helping to inspire awareness and respect for the natural environment. A replica of the cabin is next to the parking lot ($8/car). A new visitor's center is expected to open next year.

Island in Durant Pond, Maynard, MA
For those in search of a (free) pond closer to home, Durant Pond, in Maynard, is in a petite gem of a nature reserve. This man-made pond is accessible from Durant Avenue, or via a longer walk from Rockland Avenue. Once on site, there is a footpath around the pond. Both approaches and the pond path can be squishy after wet weather. Boulders and soil were mounded at one side of this pond to create a very small island, which hosts a modest-sized tree. Another option is to drive to the end of Old Marlborough Road, park in the small parking area and walk a half-mile into the wildlife refuge to Puffer Pond. There is a dock with benches facing the lake. Very meditative.   

Take a hike: The Assabet River Wildlife Refuge also has a main entrance off of Hudson Road, Sudbury, with a sizeable nature display at the Visitor Center (open FRI-SUN) and maps of the 15 miles of trails, half open to bicycling, that crisscross the 3.5 square mile refuge. "The refuge has a large wetland complex, several smaller wetlands and vernal pools, and large forested areas which are important feeding and breeding areas for migratory birds and other wildlife." Be aware that all of December is deer hunting season, so think about either wearing orange or else visit on Sundays (no hunting).

Closer to home, the Assabet River Walk Trail, accessed from Concord Street or Colbert Avenue, offers lovely views of the river, especially now that the leaves are off (most) trees. Beech trees retain their light-brown colored leaves until spring. Ditto the dark brown leaves of some types of oaks. Parts of  this trail are squishy to submerged after wet weather. Consider boots.

Beaver damaged trees next to Assabet River
Climb a mountain: Mount Wachusett, altitude at peak 2006 feet, is about 30 miles west, mostly on Route 2. The road to the top is closed to motor vehicles until next spring, but it is possible to walk or bike up the road to the summit, some 700 feet higher than the visitor's center parking lot ($5/car). There are also 17 miles of trails in the Wachusett Mountain State Reservation, some of which offer other routes to the summit. All trails are described as having steep, rocky and rough sections, and may be slippery and muddy at any time of the year. Views are spectacular. Later in the year it is possible to ski down the same mountain, as ski slopes occupy the north side.    

Save our trees: Late fall is a great time to survey your own property for Oriental Bittersweet vines. And kill them. This invasive species kills trees by overweighing and overshadowing tree tops. Look for gray-colored vines, and in treetops, a haze of red berries. Come spring, returning robins will eat these, and by doing so, spread the seeds via their feces. If you are taking a hike in the woods there is nothing particularly wrong with carrying a small, folding, brush saw or pruner.

Photo of a white birch tree, wrapped in plastic wrap
with a sticky substance (Tree Tanglefoot) smeared
on the plastic. Female winter moths get stuck as they climb
up the tree. Males (with wings) get stuck higher.
January is already too late to take tree-saving protective action against winter moths. This invasive species - at present only a problem in eastern Massachusetts - emerges from pupae starting in mid-November, after first frosts. Wingless females climb trees, where winged males find them via attracting pheromones. Meeting and mating are completed by mid-December.Eggs hatch in early spring. Look for small green caterpillars. Leaves will be so full of holes as to look lace-like. These moths prefer maple, birch and fruit trees to oak or beech trees. Insecticide can be applied in the spring, but the cost is much higher than preventive action in the fall. Males are attracted to light, so if you leave your front entrance light on when you go out in the evening, you may find your front door host to scores of males.     

Turkey in yard on Brooks Street; flock of 25 birds
Click on any photo to enlarge
See a bird: Migrating birds have left, but stay-here birds are easier to spot without all the leaf cover. Locally, large bird sightings will include geese, turkeys, ravens and crows, perhaps even a bald eagle. Watchers at any level of experience can choose to get involved in the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, an event that occurs on one day in late December or early January for which volunteers are enlisted to report every bird they see, either during the guided event, or for the stay-at-homes, the birds that visited their own bird feeders. This year's event is the 116th annual count.   

Not in the newspaper article:

Fro the bird count, the "Concord Circle," which encloses the whole or parts of eighteen towns, concluded its 56th count day at midnight January 3, 2016. Lakes, ponds, rivers, and many streams were open for ducks and geese, a legacy of our record warm December, and our field teams enjoyed a reasonably mild and brightening January day. Our count, inaugurated in 1960, began with fewer than 20 volunteers and now has a participation level that varies between 260 and 300. This year's count tallied 86 species and 37,000 individual birds, from few (bald eagles and ravens; under 20 of each) to extremely common (Canada geese and mallard ducks combined = 20% of total).