A loud rake-up call

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 12:48 PM

A late leaf-drop and snow in the weekend forecast have folks scrambling.

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Burton Johnson, a professional gutter cleaner, was under the gun to clean 30-some gutters before the predicted snow arrives. He worked on a house off Grand Avenue in St. Paul on Thursday.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Leaves have fallen late this year, putting the pressure on Burton Johnson and his family.

By Saturday, Johnson, his wife, Linda, and son, Dean -- who make up Burton's Rain Gutter Service -- have to clear leaves from the gutters on the last of several dozen St. Paul homes on their list, before a promised snowfall could change everything. They've been climbing ladders day and night, hand-scooping leaves by the light of headlamp, when necessary, before summer's colorful, crackly remains get flattened and frozen into gutters.

"We race the weather," said Johnson, who's been doing the autumn chore for 35 years.

They're not alone. Trees this year dropped their leaves about 10 days to two weeks later than usual across the state, said Jana Albers, a forest health specialist with the Department of Natural Resources. A warm, dry and sunny late summer were the probable reasons, she said. St. Paul City Engineer John Maczko noted that a late frost in the Twin Cities -- two weeks behind the median date -- seemed to keep the trees green and leafy well beyond the time they usually change.

A lack of snow has allowed folks to put off the fall chores, but it's a gamble. Snow has already begun to accumulate this week across northern Minnesota; Grand Rapids got 3 inches Tuesday night, and a rain-snow mix is forecast for the Twin Cities on Saturday.

St. Paul and Minneapolis both aim to have their fall street sweeping and leaf clearing done each year by Thanksgiving. The Johnsons didn't get started in earnest on their gutter-clearing until Nov. 1, when customers started calling them. Last year, Johnson and family had only until Nov. 13 before an 8-inch snowfall forced them into winter snow-removal work.

"Some years we work right through Thanksgiving and way into December," Johnson said. "It's just nature. This year was a little warmer than usual. So it changes."

In Minneapolis, the annual 18-day sweeping and leaf-collection project, a federally required storm-water management strategy, will wrap up Friday -- hours before the expected snow. St. Paul's will continue into next week. Last year's November snow caught both cities without plow blades on trucks, and the wet snow fell on leaves still clogging the gutters. Maczko is expecting warmer and drier weather early next week to allow for final cleanup work in St. Paul.

"We beat the snow this time, luckily," said Mike Kennedy, Minneapolis winter operations manager. "But every year we're first criticized for starting too early, and then by the end, we're criticized for not starting early enough. If we get snow on Saturday, we'll look like heroes. "

Finishing before Thanksgiving, Kennedy said, has become more difficult over the past generation as the city's forest has changed from one dominated by elms to one with a wide diversity of species, which drop leaves at different times. And many of those times have become later.

Across Portland Avenue from the Star Tribune, for example, a ginkgo tree that lost its leaves on Nov. 5, 2003, on Nov. 7, 2007, Nov. 14, 2008, and on Nov. 10 last year, shed them overnight Tuesday this year, according to staffers who've watched it out their windows and randomly noted its changes. Ginkgos characteristically drop their leaves almost all at once.

Thursday morning's low temperature of 16 in the Twin Cities was the lowest in more than seven months -- since March 27. Lows near 20 in the Twin Cities and in the low teens in northern Minnesota are predicted for this weekend.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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