Leave the Leaves

Why spend time or effort on leaf removal when you could just leave the leaves?

Fall leaves

What happens to leaves after they fall from a tree? Well, in a natural habitat, they will cover the forest floor, where they will break down to enrich the soil and provide shelter and food for millions of insects, birds, and other wildlife. Unfortunately, most homeowners intercept the leaves (by raking and bagging them), thus foregoing this enriching, natural process.

With continued urbanization and climate change, natural habitats are shrinking, so it’s important to consider our own yards as wildlife refuges. Your yard can serve as a shelter for all the little creatures that need a place to hide during the winter. Then when things warm up in Spring, the fungi and bacteria, will work to decompose those leaves and recycle the nutrients contained within, making them available for all sorts of organisms.

Well, I’ve always raked and disposed of my leaves…

Just because you’ve done something for a while, doesn’t mean it’s right. Sending leaves to the landfill is a problem. Leaves in landfills take up our increasingly limited space; moreover, they release methane when they are piled together with other materials that don’t break down (plastics). Solid-waste landfills are the largest US source of man-made methane, one of the most problematic greenhouse gases. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris take up 13% of the solid waste of the entire country, about 33 million tons per year. And if you’re using a leaf blower, it’s even worse because you’re adding in the negatives of fuel usage and noise pollution. What if there was another way to manage fallen leaves so they don’t take up landfill space and add to the ridiculous amount of greenhouse gas produced?

Well, there is an answer, and it’s even easier than you think. Instead of raking, blowing, and bagging, simply just leave the leaves!

Keep reading to learn about all the benefits of leaving the leaves!

Don't rake, just leave the leaves.

Wildlife Benefits

Leaf litter provides essential wildlife habitat to many different animals. When you clean-up all the leaves, the turtles, toads, birds, mammals, and many invertebrates have extremely limited food, shelter, and nesting material. Many butterfly and moth species will not stand a chance of overwintering when the fallen leaves they rely on for protection are gone.

If you aren’t keen on leaves being everywhere, make a wildlife brush-shelter in a corner of your yard by combining leaves with branches, sticks and stems. Pile them together to create a shelter. In the spring, it will break down and go back to the earth.

Backyard Birds of Virginia
An untouched Fall yard is much more likely to attract this variety of birds.

Compost Leaves

Leaves can also be turned into nutrient-rich compost that will be great for your garden beds and lawn next Summer. Add them to your compost pile, just as you would with any other “brown” (carbon-rich) material.

Compost Leaves

Or you can compost leaves by themselves to make “leaf mold”. The leaves will go through a “cold” composting process, meaning the decomposition is done primarily by fungi, rather than bacteria, and it is considerably slower than traditional composting. But it is a great way to use extra leaves when there are too many to go in your usual compost pile. An easy way to pile up leaves for leaf compost is to create a corral of wire fencing to contain the leaves. The leaves can be left to decompose, acting like a sponge to catch the rain, and releasing nutrients to benefit the health of all trees and other landscaping in the vicinity. And don’t worry, leaf piles do not create odors, so there is no need to turn the pile regularly.

Some of the benefits of leaf compost include…

  • Helps retain moisture in the soil by reducing evaporation. It also absorbs rainwater to reduce runoff, and in hot weather. It can hold up to 500% of its own weight in water
  • Helps cool roots and foliage
  • Better soil texture 
  • Adds beneficial microbes

Use Leaves as Mulch

Fallen leaves create a natural mulch, so you can save the money you were going to spend on mulch this fall! Like mulches you have to pay for, the leaves suppress weeds, hold in moisture, and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

Spread leaves on the garden and pile them up under and around trees and shrubs as you would normally with mulch.

Rake them towards the fence line where they can keep down weeds that often dominate there. Dump leaves on any other weeds or groundcovers that are getting out of control. A thick layer of leaves discourages weeds.

Spread Fallen Leaves in Garden Bed

If having a perfect lawn is still your priority…

Some leaves are fine on the lawn, especially if they have been run over with the lawn mower to shred them into small pieces. Leave them in a thin layer over the lawn, and they will decompose and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, to improve lawn growing conditions.

Shred leaves for lawns

Taking these steps will reduce flooding, water and noise pollution, energy consumption, and municipal costs to pick up and transport the leaves. As the leaves begin to fall this year, consider the benefits of letting them stay on the ground. Not only will it benefit the environment, your soil, and wildlife, think of all the hours you’ll save not raking and hauling leaves! Spread the word: get the entire neighborhood on board! Remember, you’re not lazy, you’re a conservationist! For these benefits alone, it’s well worth it to leave the leaves.

Check out #leavetheleaves to find more information about how you too can improve your gardening practices and make your immediate environment more hospitable to wildlife.






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