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Leave the Leaves!

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Each Fall, for time immemorial, deciduous shrubs and trees have dropped their leaves in preparation for the frozen temperatures of the winter ahead. In the past, many homeowners spent hours of their time each fall raking leaves (or paying the neighborhood kid to do so). As the times have changed, and technology "advanced," lawn and yard care has become increasingly industrialized and with the advent of gas-powered leaf blowers most residential properties (60% of land within the US) are cleared of fallen leaves before they even have a chance to accumulate.

This has begun to cause ecological distress throughout much of America, as leaf litter is a vital habitat for our invertebrates and crucial resource for many forms of wildlife.

Opossum. Leaves. Yard.
An Opossum collecting leaves for a nest.

For this reason, it is recommended that homeowners abstain from conventional "fall cleanups," especially those with native plant gardens. Fallen leaves harbor many of the beneficial insects required for a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Many Butterflies and Moths as well as predatory invertebrates like ground Beetles and Spiders depend on leaf litter to successfully overwinter. Leaves also provide insulation to plant roots and act as a mulch, preserving soil while providing nutrients as they slowly break down.

Graphic Courtesy of: Healthy Yards (Westchester Co.)

"Leave the leaves" is a great slogan, but often leads to a bit of confusion for those who take the phrase literally. Here are a few guidelines we've compiled to help you this season:

  • Continue to collect leaves from your lawns, walkways, patios, and other hardscapes. Relocate these leaves, whole, into your garden beds, lightly layering them around your plants.

  • It is imperative to keep as many leaves as possible whole, to prevent death to invertebrates which occurs during mechanical shredding and to prevent hastening the decomposition of the leaves. Many caterpillars hatch in the spring and consume the dead leaves they were laid on which cannot happen if the leaves decompose before then.

  • Whole leaves create leaf litter - layers of organic matter that house microbes, fungi, invertebrates, seeds, and more.

It is also recommended to allow dormant plant matter to remain standing through the winter. This provides a myriad of songbirds, like Song Sparrows and Chickadees, with food in the form of seeds to help sustain themselves through the cold winter months. Beneficial insects, like our many stem-nesting bees also require these plants to remain standing through the winter to ensure their survival into the new year. Many of these essential pollinators require a full 365 days within these hollow stems before becoming breeding adults, so remember to abstain from "spring cleanups" as well.

The tools you use are also important, as leaf blowers not only pollute our air, but are strong enough to kill insects and loud enough to disturb and deter wildlife from utilizing your yard and gardens as a suitable habitat. Check out our previous blog to learn all about some wildlife-friendly tools and devices to help you quickly and efficiently maintain your property, without disturbing wildlife or creating harmful emissions. How we maintain our properties in the fall can mean life or death for our backyard wildlife through the harsh winter ahead.


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