Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories on Atlanta’s yard debris challenges. Read the first here.

By David Pendered

Solutions to yard debris stacked along curbs in Atlanta include recycling much of the vegetation on site, and discarding only that which is inappropriate to store. Nature will benefit, according to advocates of natural cityscapes.

Luna moths overwinter in fallen leaves in Atlanta, unless the leaves are raked and removed. (Photo by NCBioTeacher, via wikimedia.org)

“The luna moth is the poster child of why not to rake leaves,” Kathryn Kolb, director of the non-profit EcoAddendum, said. “One of their generations overwinters in fallen leaves. If you rake up the leaves, you rake up all the luna moths and we won’t have them anymore.”

Peter Bahouth has focused on another aspect of leaf gathering. Bahouth calls for the reduction of the fairly new custom of blowing leaves with gas-powered machines. A rake or electric blower is a fine alternative to a noisy engine, if leaves have to be gathered at all, according to the Buckhead resident who works at home.

“If you’re going to keep a lawn and remove leaves from it, do it infrequently and do it with the least impact possible, in terms of noise and pollution,” Bahouth said. “The sanctity of the lawn should not be allowed to trump the sanctuary of the neighborhood, and of the home.”

These talks about onsite recycling of yard waste in general, and the phenomenon of manicured lawns in particular, are rising amid the pandemic and especially now that Atlanta has cut back the collection of such debris from weekly to twice a month amid the national labor shortage. The city’s solid waste service can’t hire enough workers, even with a $500 signing bonus and $3 an hour tacked onto normal wages. Atlanta is in the process of trying to hire private contractors to pick up yard waste.

All but two bags of leaves, packed with other yard debris, were repurposed on site by pushing material onto the landscaping island. (Photo by David Pendered)

The lawn care industry hasn’t yet spoken publicly about the situation. With an economic value in metro Atlanta of about $1 billion, according to a 2016 legal brief, the sector has been supported by influential regional and state business organizations before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Atlanta gardeners could reduce the extent of the problem by keeping more material on the property. Georgia Audubon endorses the ideas promoted by Audubon’s 2017 story, “To help birds this winter, go easy on the yard work.” Kolb offered three suggestions that, she said, any home gardener can implement or ask the lawn care service to complete:

  • Establish natural areas such as landscaping islands or margins, and place leaves and other vegetation there to decompose;
  • Establish a compost pile and put leaves there. Leaves decompose quickly and create a rich soil that can be used for potting and other purposes;
  • Chop leaves with a mower and allow the material to remain on the lawn. The moisture blanket provided by intact fallen leaves will be diminished, but this is preferable to removing leaves completely.
A turtle nestled in a bed of fallen leaves and ivy. (Photo by David Pendered)

No one expects a swift and seismic shift in the culture and customs of manicured grounds outside Atlanta’s dwellings. Pride of ownership, and tenancy, runs deep, and sometimes is made manifest in the removal of fallen leaves, limbs and faded blossoms that aren’t part of the garden plan.

However, the slowdown in Atlanta’s collection of yard waste does offer a moment to reflect on why lawn care culture has become what it is, and if it should continue. Bahouth noted that more than 400 readers have responded to his Sept. 24 post on nextdoor.com, which begins:

  • “It’s 1 pm and the leaf blower invasion has been nonstop since 8:30 this morning. We’re losing a whole beautiful season of autumn to gas powered blowers….”

Another factor is the influence of the lawn care industry in metro Atlanta – valued at about $1 billion in a 2016 legal filing in the Georgia/Florida water war. In its lawsuit, Florida had requested Georgia be required to release more water from the Chattahoochee/Flint river basins into Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court on April 1 ruled in favor of Georgia.

Tupelo honey is harvested from bees that gather nectar from tupelo gum trees, which like to stand in several feet of water along Florida’s Dead Lakes and Chipola River, a tributary of the Apalachicola River. Local aviarists say declining river flows have led to a decline in tupelo blossoms and, thus, honey. Water levels were up after hurricanes Fred and Ida passed in August and September. (Photo by David Pendered)

In a friend-of-the-court brief (pages 14, 20), Georgia business leaders argued that the lawn care industry in metro Atlanta has greater economic value than everything in Florida, combined, that relies on water flowing toward Apalachicola Bay.

As stated in the brief submitted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Regional Business Coalition of Metro Atlanta, and Georgia Chamber of Commerce:

  • “Without sufficient water for those purposes [outdoor watering], the home gardening and landscaping industries will be harmed.
  • “As explained in Part III, more people are employed in the home garden and landscaping related industries in Metro Atlanta than there are oystermen, and the value of the goods and services generated by the gardening and landscaping business in Metro Atlanta is substantially greater than the entire amounts claimed for the Apalachicola oyster industry, the Tupelo honey industry, or any other economic impact cited by Florida as the harm it purports to have incurred as the result of Georgia’s water usage.”

Notes to readers: Guidance on establishing and maintaining a yard that’s more natural, and native to the North Georgia region, is available from organizations including:

EcoAddendum – “What’s in your yard?” For more information email info@EcoAddendum.com

Georgia Audubon – “Certify your yard as a wildlife sanctuary.” For more information click here

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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1 Comment

  1. I save a ton of money by taking this minimalist approach. I rake leaves into the back yard, I put potted plants in the front yard, and I only have to hit it with a string trimmer once a year thanks to abundant tree cover. I also have some herbs planted, so I can add to recipes by eating the yard. Also, I hate leaf blowers.

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