Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


"The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one," wrote the poet Edward FitzGerald in 1859. The leaves of trees, though, fall in greater numbers.

The big maple across the alley finally got the word last week and started dropping leaves like snowflakes in a blizzard. It's one of a number of neighborhood trees that play an annual game of chicken with the Minneapolis yard-waste collection schedule. This year, crews will pick up their final loads of yard waste during the week of Nov. 27. Some of the local trees look as if they plan on holding out to the last minute again this year, suggesting that homeowners will be raking by twilight.

Here's the bitter lesson of autumn in Minneapolis: If you want to hear a tree laugh, tell it about the city's schedule for picking up yard waste. Some trees hang onto their leaves an unreasonably long time. Hapless homeowners who fail to read the city memos keep doggedly raking and bagging their leaves and placing them out for collection, where they will wait all winter for a pickup that never comes.

The trees, it seems, are watching for a different memo. It comes in the form of a chemical signal triggered by a hormone. When the signal arrives, "abscission" cells are produced that push each leaf away from its branch. As the science journalist Robert Krulwich explained in a 2009 piece on NPR, the leaves are left hanging by a thread until a wind comes along and breaks them free.

Still, human schedules are what they are, and the machinery of city services cares nothing for abscission cells or hormones. Yard-waste pickup is not the only city service that presumes to expect order from a disorderly natural world. Minneapolis began sweeping its streets Oct. 17, giving a clean miss to the mass of leaves that fell into the streets too late to be sucked up during the four-week effort that followed.

A Minneapolis homeowner might be tempted to add to the mess in the street by sweeping late-falling leaves into the gutter, there to wait for the snowplows that will eventually come. But that's bad for the sewers, it's bad for water quality, and it's contrary to city ordinance in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. It's not an option.

Actual options, though, are few. If your leaves have fallen too late for city crews to pick up, you might be able to find a site that will accept them for a fee. Or you might not. Hennepin County does not operate yard-waste sites. Ramsey County, to its credit, operates seven such sites, for free. Residents of St. Paul can also choose to pay for such waste to be picked up, but the season for doing so ends at about the same time as in Minneapolis.

Other choices are backyard composting and mulching the leaves with a lawn mower. (Anecdotal evidence gathered by an editorial writer argues strongly against putting filled yard-waste bags into plastic contractor bags and keeping them until spring. The result is an abominable mess.)

It's best, obviously, to rake up all the leaves and put them out for collection before Nov. 27. Soon enough we will trade rakes for shovels, and a blizzard of mere leaves will seem like a pleasant dream.