Maryland's leaves go round-trip

At this time of year, most homeowners are so busy bagging leaves for hauling away that they don't much consider the next "life" of this organic material. The need to recycle it, however, is increasingly important as landfill space shrinks.

In Maryland, many leaves find their way back onto lawns a year after they've been removed. Homeowners even pay for the privilege of enriching their lawns and gardens with Leafgro, a compost product that keeps leaves out of landfills.

The product has been a major leaf-recycling success story for the Maryland Environmental Service (MES), a combination government agency and nonprofit utility.

Each year, curbside collection operations deliver about a million cubic yards of leaves, grass, and brush to one of two MES composting sites.

At each site, 50 acres of leaves are composted in piles several hundred feet long, about 8 feet tall, and 20 feet wide. A spiderlike piece of equipment crawls over the piles to mix and aerate them. This speeds decomposition.

After four to six months the composted matter is placed in a curing pile. Finally, the material is screened, then bagged and sold.

As a source of humus, Leafgro is especially beneficial where sandy and clay soils may lack organic matter. In sandy soil, where everything washes through, applying a product such as Leafgro helps contain and add nutrients. The addition of Leafgro to clay soil helps improve drainage and aeration.

Every year Leafgro faces more competition from other soil-conditioning products, but local sales remain strong because of consumer trust in its reputation for quality.

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