"Fallen Leaves Become True Windfalls" By Tim O'Neil - November 28, 2005
After green leaves wither to brown, Pat Geraty gathers them by truckloads so gardeners can make the world green again. The value of dried leaves in the age of recycling is powering businesses such as Geraty's and a host of smaller municipal composting operations. This time of year, their fresh piles of steaming, ground-up leaves are being transformed naturally to nourish next spring's burst of color.
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The process of composting - letting things rot - is as old as the forest floor. And, happily for the crowded urban world, supply of the dark, earthy compost that hungry microbes leave behind roughly converges with demand.
Fourteen years ago, Missouri and Illinois banned the dumping of yard waste in landfills. Given St. Louis' abundance of shade-giving trees, and all those brown paper sacks that residents jam with leaves, something new had to be done about autumn's bounty.
Back in 1992, Geraty was one of those landscapers who travel with their lawn mowers on small trailers. Soon, he was taking in his competitors' leaves and turning out compost for gardeners large and small.
This year, his St. Louis Composting Inc.'s yards in Valley Park and near Belleville will produce about 80,000 cubic yards of the stuff. He employs 40 people. One of his customers is a company in Sauget that bags the product for hardware-store chains throughout the Midwest.
"I was a kid who cut a lot of lawns in high school," said Geraty, 41, who grew up in Creve Coeur. "One thing led to another. I guess I just saw an opportunity to diversify."
Geraty's is one of a handful of area businesses in the mulch trade. He gets truckloads of leaves, grass clippings and other yard debris from landscapers, trash haulers and municipalities. A patchwork of cities also run their own composting operations, mainly to save the cost of disposal. Residents get to haul away the byproducts, often for free.
"People just gobble that stuff up," said Greg Hayes, St. Louis forestry commissioner.
The city produces about 4,000 cubic yards of leaf compost, mainly at its yard in Carondelet Park near Interstate 55. Street crews vacuum leaves from neighborhoods and dump their loads at the yard, where forestry workers grind them up and pile them in long rows.
The city then offers the ready fertilizer for free at Carondelet Park and three other sites.
St. Peters does much the same at its Earth Centre, where residents can get two cubic yards for free and pay $7 for each additional load. Wood River vacuums leaves from its streets and dumps them to rot away on a section of the old Amoco refinery.
The process is fairly simple. The investment is in a big yard, grinding machines and equipment to periodically turn the piles as the microbes do their thing. Rotting can generate internal temperatures of about 140 degrees, which accounts for the rising steam on cold days.
Geraty's company produces a 50-50 mix of leaves and grass. St. Peters has its own blend. St. Louis uses just leaves. Generally, four cubic yards of leaves degrade into one cubic yard of finished product.
Ron Darling, Health and Environmental Services Manager for St. Peters, said the city used up what residents and paying landscapers didn't use. "It made a great seedbase for the ballfields at Woodlands (Sports) Park," he said.
Geraty said turning the piles allowed the composting to produce results in about five months. Just letting the piles ferment on their own can take 10 months.
The mulch-makers enjoy nature's help.
"And you get a product that the citizens enjoy," said Hayes, of St. Louis. "Good deal all around."