Jackson County's Leaf Exchange Program deterred leaf burning by encouraging their use in gardens and compost bins.

Greg Carey and Meredith Lowry have big plans for the plot of land behind their Ashland triplex.

Carey, an Ashland botanist, and Lowry, owner of the housing units on Van Ness Avenue, have spent the past year working to turn that land into a community garden, complete with fruit trees, berries and a compost bed.

"We're trying to take an eyesore and turn it into something beautiful," Carey said. "It will give people within the neighborhood an opportunity to grow their own food, which is incredibly empowering."

They cleared the lot, previously covered in blackberry bushes and used as an informal dumping site. The duo says its renovation has taken hard work and dedication — not to mention a few piles of leaves, to create a foundation for their compost bed.

Carey enrolled in Jackson County's Leaf Exchange Program, meant to deter leaf burning by encouraging their use in gardens and compost bins. Under the program, people who want leaves are put into a database along with their contact information.

People with too many leaves on their hands do the same. The idea is to distribute this composting commodity, pairing up those who have too many with those who don't have enough.

"Burning leaves adds pollutants into the air," said Jackson Bowers, Jackson County Environmental Health Division manager. "As part of our air quality program, we've provided the leaf exchange program as part of our efforts to try and promote alternatives to burning."

Jackson County Department of Health and Human Services launched the exchange program more than a decade ago. Officials at the time were concerned by the level of air pollution, caused by residents' piles of leaves. Bowers said the leaf exchange program, and others, has helped to reduce the air pollution as a result of yard waste.

"Open barrel burning was an issue in Jackson County," he said. "We were trying to get away from that any way we could."

Jessica Leong wanted to do her part by enrolling as a leaf donor in the program. The Talent resident has grown accustomed to seeing her yard covered in leaves each fall. She said the cost-free alternative to disposing of those leaves was a winning proposition.

"It basically saves a trip to the dump. I thought it would be better to recycle," Leong said. "It saves time and money, and if they're of use to someone who needs them, that's great."

It is great news for Carey, who says he will take as many as he can get his hands on.

"To compost it's helpful to have the basic levels of nutrients — 20 parts carbon to one part nitrogen," he said. "Leaves add bulk, provide roughage and are long-staying."

The leaf exchange program is one of a number of steps city and county officials have taken to encourage resourcefulness among residents. Ashland Sanitary & Recycling has a Pre-paid Leaf Bag Recycling program, where residents can have their excess leaves picked up every other week.

Those interested in joining the leaf exchange program can put their name on the list by calling Jackson County Air Quality, 774-8207. To sign up for the Pre-paid Leaf Bag Recycling program, call Ashland Sanitary & Recycling, 482-1471.

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.