The warm weather is giving us an early opportunity to witness an especially pointless Florida ritual:
Homeowners rake up their live oak leaves — now falling to make way for new growth — and stuff them into plastic garbage bags that are stacked by the road and eventually carted off to the landfill.
The homeowners then drive to the lawn and garden center of their nearest big-box store and buy roughly the same number of plastic bags full of mulch.
This is pointless because, of course, oak leaves are mulch. Not only that, they are about the best mulch you can find for Florida. As the state's dominant hardwood species, the oak has leaves that are not only free but abundant.
That they are tough — shell-like, even — makes them a great barrier against weeds that like to sprout between rosebushes and tomato plants.
As the leaves decompose, they create a nutrient-rich compost, attracting earthworms that generally have a hard time getting by in Florida's sandy soil, said Jim Moll, the lawn and garden guru at the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.
Worms enrich and aerate the soil, Moll said. And, because of the tannic acid in oak leaves, their compost tends to nicely neutralize Florida's often alkaline soil. Several native plants, including palmettos, evolved to thrive at the base of oaks and pines and love slight acidity, said Richard Stauffer, a member of the Florida Native Plant Society. So do popular flowering non-natives, such as azaleas and camellias, Moll said.
When and why did homeowners abandon the practice of simply raking oak leaves and pine needles into their gardens and flower beds in favor of buying ground-up trees?
Decades ago, Moll said, and probably because they think it looks neater.
Maybe it does for a while, because who can deny the appeal of a fresh bed of cypress mulch? Soon, though, it starts to look as drab as any other dead plant material. And it comes at a steep environmental cost. Some cypress mulch is just chipped-up cypress trees — the backbone of vital wetlands — that are harvested only for that purpose.
If you must buy bagged mulch, Stauffer said, use the stuff made from melaleuca trees, a harmful exotic.
Still, oak leaves are best, he said. He and his wife, Julie Wert, president of a local chapter of the Native Plant Society and an award-winning natural gardener, keep an eye out for neighbors in Aripeka who have done their duty as owners of the standard Florida yard — gathering up and bagging oak leaves as if they're trash.
"Sometimes we'll see eight or 10 plastic bags. You can always tell they're oak leaves because they're light and fluffy," Stauffer said.
"We ask people if we can have them, and sometimes we even say we'll bring their bags back. They look at us like we're crazy."
He and Wert have a greenhouse full of vegetables growing in composted horse manure and oak leaves. Still doubt the leaves' nutrient power? Well, their tomato plants are 7 feet tall.
So Stauffer and Wert use oak leaves the way nature does, as fertilizer and mulch. In the process, they save landfill space, plastic bags, unnecessary car trips and an iconic wetland tree species.
And supposedly they're the crazy ones.