The trouble with leaves

Warm fall results in piles of leaves in Oak Park in January

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

An unusually warm fall has some Oak Parkers scratching their heads over piles of leaves that still line the streets of their neighborhoods. 

Many have been left wondering what to do with the rotting piles, weeks after they are usually scooped up by the village's public works department and its garbage hauler Waste Management.

The large maple tree in front of the home of Belinda Lutz-Hamel and her husband, William Hamel, in the 1000 block of South Scoville Avenue, dropped its leaves later this year than in the past. 

Lutz-Hamel, who has lived in the home for the last 22 years, said the leaves usually fall just after Thanksgiving, but this year they stubbornly clung on.

She said in an interview in the first week of 2017, "I'm looking out the back window and seeing some trees that still haven't lost their leaves."

The couple dutifully raked the leaves out into the street to be picked up by garbage collectors in December, but the pile was covered by the first snow of the season and shoved back onto the parkway by snow plows, leaving a brown pile of icy muck.

Undaunted, Belinda and William again raked the leaves out onto the street, once the piles had thawed, but by then it was too late – leaf removal season had ended.

Lutz-Hamel said she's seen leftover piles in other parts of the village. 

"I welcome you to drive around the village; the streets look unkempt," she said.

Predicting the perfect leaf removal schedule is as difficult as predicting the weather, according to Karen Rozmus, environmental services manager for the Oak Park Public Works Department.

Depending on weather and other factors, the leaf removal tonnage can vary by hundreds of tons, she said. In December 2006, for instance, Waste Management recorded removing 9.5 tons of leaves – a number that jumped to more than 440 tons in December the following year. In December 2016, 288.6 tons of leaves were picked up in the village.

Rozmus said 2016 was an anomaly for leaves dropping later than normal. 

"I've never seen anything like it," she said. "It's just a weird weather year."

Rozmus noted that the eight-week leaf removal program costs the village roughly $240,000 to $250,000 a year. This year they extended the leaf removal program by one week through Dec. 9.

"In the past, we have been able to – for a week or so – send guys out in a truck to pick up piles that we legitimately missed," she said. "We don't think we missed anything [this year]; the trees and the leaves missed us."

Could global warming be the culprit? Perhaps, Rozmus says, but rainfall and other factors also play a role. 

She said the overall amount of leaves picked up in Oak Park is actually down in the last few years because tree removal – primarily due to Dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer. 

No one likes to rake leaves into the street – especially twice. But that is the only solution, according to Rozmus.

She said postcards have been sent to residents in neighborhoods that still have piles of leaves lining the streets in front of their homes, instructing them to bag the leaves and call the public works department to have them picked up.

Only a few years ago, leftover leaves that weren't picked up by the village were the responsibility of the residents. That changed in 2013, Rozmus said.

"Up through 2012, if you missed the leaf [removal] season, it was, 'Too bad, see you in April,'" she said.

Beginning in 2013, the village began removing leaves that had been bagged and left under the village's winter organics collections program.

Residents are not required to put a sticker on the bags, and will not be charged for the pickup, but they must call the public works department and notify them that they have bagged the leaves and left them in the regular refuse collection area at their residence. 

Rozmus emphasized that they must make that call to have the leaves removed. Collection of yard waste is every other Wednesday, she said.

Lutz-Hamel suggested taking money from the Park District of Oak Park and River Forest to complete the job, since the tree is in the public parkway.

"I don't have leaves on my schedule of things I want to do," she said. "I didn't plant the tree. It's the village's tree; it's not my tree. If I decided I don't want the tree, I can't just decide to chop it down."

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Scott Concertman from Oak Park  

Posted: January 16th, 2017 11:18 PM

As our areas community tree historian and volunteer TreeKeeper Arboriculturist. I can share some scientific facts that "Short day" or "Long night" tree species predominantly rely on increasing period of darkness to determine when to begin dropping leaves. Not average day temperature. This evolved Photoperiodism method involves leaf Abscission, initiated by levels of increasing Ethylene production. Leaves then change color as they begin transporting all their good stuff back into main stem & root system for storage over winter. Otherwise if a tree was to hold on to its leaves over winter, doing so would cause Desiccation, or drying out. Native species like Red Oak can hold on to its leaves overwinter, after only partially severing their petioles tougher abscission layer. While I can only theorize that Norway Maples, whose leaves suffered from Black Tar spot after our cool wet spring. End up holding on to leaves too long, and failed to go through Abscission process before hit by first frost. Callery Pear from China is another imported species which retains its autumn leaves too long, causing trees already poorly attached limbs to fail after heavy wet snow or Icing event. Individual trees which had been fertilized over late summer, or had been pruned late in season, produce new leaves and tips of branches which will also die off once winter arrives. The only satisfaction I can offer, is fact that premature leaf drop is caused by individual trees suffering from poor seasonal growth. And by quitting early, they hope to retain enough stored energy to wake up again next spring. So trees that hold on to leaves the longest, should also be the healthiest. It would be interesting to begin keeping record of when most trees begin loosing their leaves in fall each year. That's usually by time Halloween arrives locally. Anyways, the only horticultural reason we blow away our rich resource of organic matter 2 street 4 costly contractor pick up. Is 2 prevent leaves killing lawn.

Rani Dawn  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 4:04 PM

Why not just leave leaves on the lawn?!!! What is this obesssion with leaf blowing into the street, making it hard for bicyclists trying to ride near the curb. Leaf blowers should be banned period. They are noise pollution of the highest order and lessen the enjoyment of most of the year. I have now seen people using leaf blowers in parks! I mean, REALLY?! What is wrong with leaving leaves in the park as is?!!!!!

Terry Stanton  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 8:45 AM

Why is raking leaves on the street the "only solution"? Why does Oak Park have valet leaf collection in the first place? It is yet another house owner service subsidized by people in high density buildings. It also is an incentive to obsessively clear lawns of leaves that could well be left alone over the winter. I used to live in a small city where if you wanted to rake and dispose of leaves you had to put them in bags that you bought. Raking into the street was illegal. The world kept spinning.

Stephanie Walquist  

Posted: January 11th, 2017 6:12 AM

Leaves make a great mulch and soil amendment, which might be one reason there are less leaves being put into piles. Residents are putting them to good work in their gardens and yards. It's also a great time to reduce lawn and create new garden beds using the sheet composting method. Trees are worth the trouble of their leaves--let's remember all they do for us--sequester carbon, clean the air, soak up storm water, improve property value, create habitat, moderate temperatures, and all the other ways they improve our lives. Research has shown that forests release chemicals that actually improve our immune systems. Many of the trees hanging onto their leaves are the invasive Norway Maples and Callery Pears. Some oaks are marcescent and will hang onto their leaves until spring . In a time when the environment is in real trouble, the last thing we can complain about is leaves and wanting our village to keep spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to dispose of them when there are low cost solutions that are far more beneficial to the environment.

Robert Zeh  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 8:54 PM

There is no "Park District of Oak Park and River Forest". The two villages each have their own park districts. And the park districts (plural!) don't have anything to do with the public parkways.

Pauline Trilik Sharpe  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 8:27 PM

The village actually missed the last pick up on my block. There were about 6 houses that put out leaves for the final pick up, that never happened. I say the village should do one more sweep, especially the blocks they missed.

Eric Gyllenhaal from Oak Park  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 6:48 PM

Let's stop planting Norway Maples. They're the ones that kept holding leaves into December, at least in our neighborhood.

Elizabeth Titus Rexford from Oak Park  

Posted: January 10th, 2017 3:57 PM

It's too bad that "Mother Nature" did not read the Village policies about leaf collection. In that case, it would make more sense to follow Mother Nature's plan and adjust the pickup dates accordingly. Also, maybe the Village could encourage more people to chop up the leaves with their lawn mowers to leave on the grass. Environmentalists say this is the best way to deal with leaves because, in that way, the leaves enrich the soil and protect the grass for the next growing season.

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