When I was a kid they used to burn 'em.

Alongside curbs all over town, smoldering piles of brown, charring leaves sent up billows of thick, gray smoke. Sometimes we'd put a blanket over the heap and send smoke signals. No one ever responded. Perhaps it was our spelling.

Fall! That time of the year when trees disrobe, scattering their tattered clothing all over our yards. And, like parents chasing around picking up after children, so many people are at this time of year cleaning up the litter deposited by their shady friends. Seems like a waste of time to me.

Occasionally someone creative designs a new and better way to rake leaves. Nowadays you'll find people out in their yards with what look like giant hair dryers blowing their leaves into piles. They're clever, but just like the rakers, I think they're wasting their time.

In my neighborhood many of the trees still have nearly half their leaves. Yet hundreds and hundreds of person-hours have been spent raking up what has fallen thus far. It doesn't make sense. The frequent, gusty autumn winds are blowing everything that's already been raked up around again. No one is winning except, perhaps, the companies who make the plastic bags some people rake their leaves into.

I figure God will eventually strip the trees bare and blow the leaves to their final resting place. Then, maybe then, it will be time to gather them up. Of course, if I'm lucky, my reward might be that all my leaves are blown into someone else's yard, and I won't have to rake a thing!

What good does raking do? Is it necessary? Is it anything but a good use for the materials they make rakes out of?

I put these questions to Dr. Hank Mityga, lecturer in horticulture at the University of Maryland.

"Dr. Mityga, do you rake the leaves in your yard?"

"Usually only after all of them have fallen from the trees. It just doesn't make much sense to do it before that. More are going to fall, and the wind is going to blow more of them around.

"Now, there is one exception to what I just said. My back yard is completely fenced in. My front yard isn't. The front yard is fairly self-cleaning, but the fallen leaves really accumulate in the back. When they get so deep that they completely cover my grass, I generally try to get them up. If I don't, the grass under them will start to yellow and could die from lack of sunlight.

"It would be good for anyone with grass that's green this time of year, like the bluegrasses and ryes are, to keep piles of leaves off their lawns. Most of the people with zoysia and Bermuda grass, though, really don't have anything to worry about. They wouldn't have to rake their yards till next spring.

"By the way, I usually don't use a rake to move the leaves. I just set my lawnmower at a high setting and basically use it like a vacuum cleaner. The chute blows them where I want them, or I could bag them like grass clippings and reuse them."

"Reuse them how? As what?"

"As mulch. I pile loads of leaves around all my azaleas every fall to help protect them. They usually stay where they're put, too. The rest of them I put into a big pile in the back yard. Sometimes I'll wet the pile down to mat the leaves so they won't blow.

"After a year or two a pile of leaves three or four feet high will decompose and produce six to eight inches of leaf mold. I use it a lot of times instead of peat moss which, by the way, is becoming very expensive.

"I make my leaf mold the lazy way, but if someone is moderately industrious, they can greatly speed up production very easily. One way would be to pile up their leaves, sprinkle them with a little dirt, water and some powdered limestone. Then every month or so they should spray some more water on the pile and spade the leaves over a few times. In about four months they'll have some really usable mulch.

"The people who are really missing the boat, though, are the ones who put their leaves into plastic bags. If they took each of those bags full of leaves and threw in a shovelful of dirt, a cup of lime and about two gallons of warm water, mixed it all up and sealed the bag closed, they'd have a terrific compost in only a month or two. That could save someone who gardens quite a bit of money in the long run."

So -- alas -- leaf raking isn't a total waste of time and energy. It's just that for most of us the results could be put to better use.