Thursday, August 18, 2016

Oak leaf mold...

Oak leaf mold...  Most people have never even heard of leaf mold, but we used it on our farm to help fertilize and acidify the soil for the holly trees we raised.  We also bagged the stuff and sold it at retail.

My dad had a connection with a man I knew only as “Pete”.  Pete owned a beat-up, broken-down two ton truck and a pitch fork.  When he was in need of some drinking money, he'd go down to southern New Jersey, load up his truck with some choice oak leaf mold (from public lands), and then deliver it to our shed.  There he unloaded it into a big pile.  I remember Pete vividly: a scrawny little guy, always with alcohol on his breath, always grateful to my dad for buying the load, and always playful with us kids.  His vocabulary was full of words I didn't know then :)

After that we'd use some of the leaf mold ourselves, and bag it up as you see in the photo above.  That's me, at age 7, right about when my dad started paying me to fill the bags.  The first couple of years I was bagging it, we used burlap bags (as you see in the photo).  Afterward we used the new-fangled polyethylene bags, nicely printed up the same way.  In both cases we closed the bags using a stiff wire that was twisted with a hand tool much like a Yankee screwdriver – I had endless trouble using that tool!  We had a metal stand that held the bags upright and open while we filled them.  When we were little, we moved the bags with the steel cart you see in the photo – I remember that cart very well.  It was at the limit of my ability to push that thing with a bag of leaf mold on it!

So what is oak leaf mold?  It's what's left after oak tree leaves fall to the ground in the autumn, and then rot for several years.  The photo at left (not mine) gives a good idea what it looks like.  The odor I can't think how to describe, but it's pleasant and earthy, and very distinctive – I'd recognize it immediately even though I haven't smelled oak leave mold for probably 50 years.

These bags of oak leaf mold were one of the few things my dad was willing to make a straightforward profit on.  I remember he and my mom sitting down at our kitchen table one day, figuring out how many bags were in one of Pete's loads.  They set the price for the retail bags by taking the cost (from Pete), adding some amount for the labor of filling it (which was much more than they paid me!), and then multiplying by three.  I can't remember any other product my dad sold where he applied a markup rate like that.  Particularly with trees and shrubs he was quite likely to sell them at cost, or even to give them away.  In the years that he was doing plantings and landscape maintenance my mom was often hollering at him for not charging enough for his labor – often below minimum wage.  Several members of my family have inherited this aversion to profit! :)

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