Leaf Thief

Michael and I were walking past the storm drain, exactly where I’d hoped to finish stealing the tidily stacked bags of Chinkapin oak leaves. 

Me: “Aw, Metro must have gotten them yesterday.”  I looked for evidence on the asphalt, where knuckle-boom truck can leave scars. Nothing.
“Or maybe someone else stole them?”

Michael: “Right. Like other people go around and steal leaves for their yard.”

Me: “You’d be surprised.”

Am I right?

Some of my friends steal leaves for their yards. Margie, Maureen, and Heidi certainly do.

We steal leaves for free mulch, free fertilizer, and free habitat.
Do you?

I used to get rid of all my leaves, and now I steal other people’s.

I’ve cleared storm grates of loose leaves (Shingle oak with galls!), I’ve stolen paper bags from the curb (Hackberry with galls!), and I’ve taken 16 plastic Hefty bags from a sidewalk (Black oak with galls!). 

The Goods:

For weeks, I’ve been casing curbs by peeping inside leaf bags. I steal only the best.

  • Are the leaves mulched? I’m sad for the creatures on and in them.
  • Are the leaves from a yard with a Mosquito Joe sign, or a sign that says “Stay Off Till Dry?” I don’t want herbicides or pesticides in my living mulch. 

I can afford to be choosy, because leaf bags line every block, and they don’t go to waste: Metro will take paper bags to chip into mulch. 

What’s wasteful is how much time and money people spend to vanish every leaf from their yard.
What’s worse is how much food, shelter, and cover get vanished.

Hackberry leaf and petiole galls

I want whole, native leaves full of invertebrates as eggs, larvae, pupae, and grownups. I want caterpillars, moths, spiders, beetles. I want leaves as cover, food, and housing for the creatures in my lawn.
And, I want less lawn…

I’ve learned to put mats on the carseats first…

The Goal: 

My stolen leaves are aimed at my backyard, where I’m trying to convert areas beneath trees and shrubs into beds that never need mowing.

As I drag and dump onto the lawn, I keep paraphrasing a famous quote from an infamous film, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be mowing again!” 

I only mow 4 times a year, but each time nearly kills me. It’s too much work. Not to mention too much pollution, noise, electricity, and too much accidental mowing of small creatures. I’m terrified I’ll mow the fireflies who rest down low during the day. Or skinks, or ladybugs, or anyone.

And, I want layers of leaves so thick that come next fall, even Creeping Charlie cannot creep to the light of day.

The Plan:

At my tree / shrub driplines, I start with a layer of the paper bags themselves. Then, I add big, slidy Oak leaves, then Maple or whatever, but I always top with my favorite: Hackberry. Hackberry leaves curl and lock into position, and can keep bigger leaves from flying to my neighbors’ yards.

Fingers crossed that I will have less lawn and more biodiversity by spring.


Do you steal leaves?

Do you have a method for choosing and using?


#LeavetheLeaves is the hashtag of choice when preaching this particular gospel of native habitat.

But, I’ve just thought of a new one:

#StealtheLeaves! For curb alerts when we find stellar bags begging to be stolen.

Shingle oak leaf with gall

Why to Leave the Leaves, from the Xerces Society

Why to Leave the Leaves, from the National Wildlife Federation

#HomeGrownNationalPark: Why is Reducing the Area of Lawn Important?


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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative NonfictionBrevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, Stonecrop Review, The Fourth River and other journals.
Coming soon is a book with her name on it: Paradise in a Parking Lot: Unlikely Stories from Urban Nature.

5 thoughts on “Leaf Thief

  1. Go you! I don’t steal leaves in my neighborhood. Most everyone uses a lawn services, and I, too, do not want the herbicides and pesticides. I do make use of the leaves that fall from my trees. I don’t always leave them where they fall. But I do leave them on my property. They’re wonderful! And free!!

    1. Cheryl, if you find effective education / outreach ways to demonstrate why yards are better without pesticides, will you share? It’s hard to compete with the lawn industry’s messages!

      1. This is exactly what I’ve tried to do through my writing for local magazines. The problem in my case is that we live in a pretty strict HOA neighborhood. It’s an old neighborhood, but very manicured. It’s a losing battle here, I’m afraid. I still try to educate as best I can. My yard is definitely the “which of these things does not belong here?” yard! 😂 But so many people stop by to ask about my Certified Habitat sign, the variety of plants, the little meadow, compost, etc. I really should do more to educate about sustainability/ecology. I think most people really just do not know the consequences of herbicides/pesticides, etc.

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