This has become a rallying cry by gardeners, natural landscape enthusiasts and ecologists. To let fallen leaves stay where they land in yards across America is becoming a popular trend. Not because homeowners and gardeners are lazy (so we claim), but because the leaves provide a protective habitat and ecosystem for the insects, critters and microbes that survive under a blanket of nutrients and protection that leaves furnish over the winter.
The latest natural science recommendation is to simply let the leaves fall where they may which allows insects, amphibians, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and larvae of pollinators such as butterflies, moths as well as bees to survive the winter months and complete their life cycle.
Nowadays, leaving the leaves is being a good steward of wildlife. That means we are no longer “leaf slackers.” We’re great contributors to providing eco habitats for pollinators such as the Monarch butterflies which are approaching massive depopulation due to urban sprawl and the heavy use of herbicides and insecticides. Bee populations are also decreasing due to Colony Collapse Disorder, whereby bees mysteriously disappear from their hives, never to return. The decline of these two important pollinators threatens food production which is becoming a worldwide problem. Therefore, leaving the leaves in yards and gardens is a good thing which leaf raking neatniks need to understand and appreciate.
Leaves put nitrogen and carbon back into the soil, holds moisture in the soil and suppresses weeds. Ecologists love this!
However, homeowners with lawns will disagree because thick layers of leaves left on lawns can cause diseases and kill the grass through sun deprivation. But here’s a solution: if there’s a lawn, there’s usually a lawn mower which can be used to mow over the leaves a few times to break them down into smaller pieces, thus letting the sun through as well as allow needed moisture to get to the roots. The smaller leaf bits break down faster to feed the lawn while still providing a habitat for insects and wildlife.
In the White Mountains, it’s important to be aware that large accumulations of leaves and pine needles presents the possibility of being a fire hazard. Keep the piles small so air can circulate through the leaves and pine needles. Remove dry leaves away from the foundation of the home and from outer buildings. Keep the piles reasonably moist until winter precipitation takes over.
The main argument for removing leaves has been mostly aesthetic but the consequence of raking all leaves, bagging them up and sending them off to landfills creates an even larger environmental problem. First of all, the plastic bags do not break down and add to the plastic waste problem that plagues the globe. Secondly, environmentalists blame leaves dumped in landfills along with other organic waste breaks down in such a way that creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
It’s better to let leaves break down slowly and naturally in the garden into compost matter.
Some HOA’s require leaf removal and if that’s the case, creating small piles in the corner of a yard or within a small fenced area to allow natural decomposition will provide compost for the garden and lawn next year. We use leaves and pine needles as a mulch to cover garlic planted early in the fall and also for mulch in raised beds. This definitely provides a protected area for wildlife to overwinter.
So, what’s the lesson? Leave the leaves is now a duty and elevates a leaf slacker to an environmental hero … and it eliminates an aching back.