Friday, October 10, 2008


Fall in New England can be lovely -- especially while the foliage is heading towards or at peak. And each year, when I stand at the end of my driveway and look back at my home, framed by beautiful 150-year old sugar maples in blazing color, it makes me smile.

But then three weeks later, I have to clean the leaves off the lawn, and I'm not smiling so much anymore.

The fall leafing ritual has always been a mixed blessing for me. It's a pretty thankless chore (though I suppose the lawn would thank me if it could), and a tremendous effort at that, but has also been an inspiration for innovation and process improvement.

The first few years we were in my house, I did the leaves by hand, with rakes and a tarp. My wife helped the first year, but the raking bug apparently didn't take, and I've pretty much had the chore to myself most years. The raking method sucked, really, and it didn't get much better when I started using my trailer to get the leaves to the back yard, towing it behind my Gravely walk-behind. It only took me a couple of years to decide to try something different.

The first big improvement involved blowing. I bought an electric blower, which was a complete and utter waste of time and money. But sticking with the tried and true approach of using a bigger hammer if the small one didn't work, I rented a "Little Wonder" walk behind leaf blower from The Home Depot in Natick. This thing was life-changing.

Using a walk-behind blower was by no means "free" in terms of effort. It was like pushing a heavy lawnmower around, and required no fewer passes on the lawn. But it was a real time-saver as compared to the rake. It helped me create piles for loading into the trailer in a fraction of the time. What had been a 3-4 day epic the first couple of years became a 2-2.5 day event. Not bad! I rented a walk-behind unit for a couple of years, then bought one of my own several years ago. I couldn't justify a Little Wonder (nice as they are), and bought a Giant Vac that works just fine (but whose low-hour alloy Briggs and Stratton engine block cracked a few years ago, necessitating a replacement).

The world isn't a static place, and neither is my neighborhood. The woods behind my house had at one point been an orchard. The orchard had over time been abandoned, grown up into woods, and then, perhaps inevitably, the last remaining parcel -- three acres directly behind my house -- was developed. I had plenty of warning, and as the winter closed in after the last Fall of dragging leaves into those woods three years ago, I started thinking about other leafing strategies.

I started by looking into professional removal, but in spite of my penchant for spending perfectly good money on occasionally questionable toys, my Yankee sensibilities struggled with the notion of forking over $700 to clean up the yard every Fall. I guess getting back a bit more than a weekend for only $300 per day isn't such a bad deal. But it's not like I'd be able to use that time to relax. There's always something else waiting in line for time and money when you own a house. And that's especially the case with an old one.

Having ruled out landscapers (sorry, guys) I stumbled on Trac Vac companions for riding mowers. These vacuums are of a design similar to my walk behind blower, but arranged such that the business end of the machine is the fan's intake, not its exhaust. But the homeowner models are pretty expensive and don't offer much collection capacity. I get a LOT of leaves -- I'd spend all my time emptying bins. Then one day I saw a landscaping truck roll by. It was a dump body pickup with a big plywood box on the back and a vacuum sitting on the hitch. Eureka! I had my solution. There's a pun in there, in case you missed it.

Over the next few weeks, I noodled on a plan. I needed a riding mower, a truck loader (I learned the vacuums were called), a box for my trailer, a hitch for the mower and an adapter to connect the truck loader hose to the mower deck. And my budget was $700.
I found a truck loader in The Want Advertiser, a local classifieds publication (in case that wasn't obvious) that can be found at convenience stores and the like. I have to believe their business model is under immense pressure, but it's a useful weekly, just the same. There was a Ransomes truck loader up near Portsmouth, NH for $250 -- perfect! OK, not perfect, or even close to perfect. But a good start.

I've mentioned that I'm a Gravely guy. And so naturally I wanted a Gravely rider to complement my walk behinds. And more to the point, I wanted one of the older ones whose internals I understood. They have drivelines that are virtually identical to the walk behinds, complete with big bronze worm gears putting torque to the drive wheels. eBay yielded a 1970-ish Gravely 430 tractor (t's a 400 series rider with an Onan 12 on it, at least). It was out in Berwick, PA on the Susquehanna river. It was a bit of a drive out there and back, but I made a long weekend of it and visited with a good friend in New Jersey. We took in the Auto Show while we were at it -- a good weekend all around. eBay also coughed up a Trac Vac attachment for the Gravely's mower deck, which allowed me to connect a leaf vacuum to the grass chute on the deck without having to fabricate anything.

My trailer is a perfect platform for a box into which the vacuum could discharge the mulch created by the dual action of the mower deck and the vacuum impeller. I made a 4x4x6 box from thin plywood, giving me a bit of room at the front of the trailer to mount the blower. The rear door on the box swings upward and out of the way, and the box vents out the top of the box. The box breaks down and builds up readily with drywall screws. And the vacuum is counterbalanced by cinder blocks loaded inside the mulch box, at the far rear of the trailer, making it much easier to horse the trailer around and taking a lot of strain off the tractor's hitch (which I don't really trust for this load).
Putting it together every fall is pretty simple. I assemble the box, wrestle the vacuum onto the front of the trailer, strap it down with some ratcheting tie-down straps, toss in the four cinder blocks, hitch it up to the tractor and run the hose forward to the mower deck, where it connects to the chute via a length of stove pipe. There are a couple of years' worth of evolution here, and it works well at this point. Building the box takes the longest of the steps above.
I have to say, it works very well. But as you might expect with old equipment, there have been some issues over the years. And though I came in under budget initially, I haven't stayed there. More on my leafing rig next time.
All for now,

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