OK, I'm just going to say it. I curbside shop. These days, primarily for leaves, but over the years I've also gotten other wonderful, useful things that others had discarded as trash. I love leaves, both shredded in my compost bin and whole as mulch on my many garden beds. I don't get enough leaves in my own yard, so I supplement my leaves each fall with those others have set at the curb.
Curbside Shopping for Leaves
The other day I came across the hugest collection of leaf bags I have ever seen in my life. We're talking 20-quadrillion-41, or at least eleventy-nine. (Trust me, I'm a master gardener!) We're talking mother lode. The kind of plenty that makes you want to drop to your knees in thankfulness or take a long running jump into the crunchy goodness!
Unfortunately, I could do neither as I was on my way home with ingredients to make hummus for the master gardener potluck that evening, but I decided to return to this leaf mecca later and to show you the curbside shopping process. Promptly after the potluck, at 9:30 p.m., I phoned my friend Pete to ask him to meet me and take photos. (What I really like about Pete is that he knows (and humors) me so well that his only question dealt with logistics, not the whys or wherefores of what I was wanting to do!)
It's important to get the right kind of leaves at the curb. Oak leaves break down slowest and are best for mulch; maple leaves break down quickest and are best compost — but that's not exactly what I mean. I mean that I only want to come back with leaves, not with brambly twigs, spent garden foliage, a leaf/grass clipping mix (though ideal for compost, I have plenty of my own grass clippings, and these bags are heavier to lift), or any other creative combination.
Often it's obvious if twigs are in the bag because they have a way of poking out the top or through the sides. I won't even stop if I see that. When I do stop, here's what I do (I usually wear gloves for all steps but got distracted being a model, too!):
I quickly look into the bag and exclude bags that obviously contain yard waste other than leaves. However, I've found that even if a bag only has leaves visible at the top, other stuff you don't want may still be hiding underneath.
To quickly gauge what else may be in the bag, I give it a quick frisk (patting both sides). If there are twigs, you will feel the edges of the bag being pokey. If there are other kinds of yard waste, they feel denser and more solid than dried leaves. This may sound ambiguous, but you'll know it when you frisk it, trust me!
Next, I give the bag a quick lift a few inches off the ground to gauge its weight. If it's really heavy, it probably also contains plant clippings, which I don't want (dried leaves are fairly light). Plus, I need to be able to comfortably lift the bag into my car or trunk.
I also avoid bags that are filled to the brim and those only half filled. The first will spill leaves into my car and the second aren't worth my time.
Bags should be easy to handle and load. I can't stress this enough.
I set bags upright into Sandy (my Ford Focus). Three bags fit on the back seat, one on the front passenger seat...
... and several in the trunk (more if I'd cleaned it out first!).
I use some of the leaves as mulch...
...and shred others (using lawnmower or weed whacker inserted into can of leaves) as browns for my compost bin. I fill it to the top in fall and by spring (when I have greens) it's sunken down halfway. I also save leaves in my shed to use during the summer.
I reuse the bags for my own yard waste (remember all those buckthorn branches?!) or as weed blockers or in lasagna layering.
It's a win-win-win-win.
What Is Trash?
Over the years, I've gotten some wonderful things at the curb: my beloved Weber grill, high-end ceramic pots, living plants in good health, sturdy shelving I use in my shed and basement, a glass windowpane I use to adorn my shed, and window screens that I use on top of my rain barrels and in winter on the ground to make it easy to pick up leftover seed hulls from the feeders. I've been with others who have found a bent-cane rocking chair, an antique wingback chair, a solid wood side table, other types of furniture, and designer shoes and clothes (most barely worn, and some new).
I was raised with a strong sense of "waste not, want not." I'm a long-time garage saler, recycler, and reuser, so the mental leap to "trash picking" (curbside shopping is a way better term!) was natural to me. And it really got me thinking about what "trash" even is. Sure, a lot of it really is trash (unusable, dirty, or broken things; wrappers and packaging; and just plain icky, yucky stuff). But in our affluent society, people get often tired of things well before their useful life is worn out. The only thing that turns these items from valued personal belongings into trash is the opinion of the owner, not the value or condition of the object.
I'd often stopped to look when something caught my eye at the curb, but I didn't start going out specifically to see what might be waiting until about eight years ago, right after my divorce. I actively curbside shopped Ann Arbor for maybe two years. Since then, the city changed its trash collection policy so all items must be contained in city-supplied carts; nothing can be left just sitting at the curb and nothing can be in owner-supplied bins.
There is a wide spectrum of people who curbside shop, all with differing motivations, goals, techniques, and comfort levels. Personally, I never opened bags of trash or even lifted lids of bins; I only took items that were sitting out in the open. For me, the change in city trash rules ended curbside shopping.
Also, with the emergence and popularity of online sites like freecycle and craigslist, it's been a lot easier for people to sell or give away their usable items, as opposed to throwing them out. I use both sites frequently, and am also an avid thrift store shopper. I love vintage and retro items, things with a history.
Other people also dumpster dive (crawling into dumpsters at retail establishments), which I lack the physical prowess and, okay, the cahonas, to try.
If you've curbside shopped or dumpster dived (dove?), please let me know!