Why You Should Leave the Leaves

Savvy gardeners know that keeping fallen leaves on their property benefits wildlife and the environment

09-28-2015 // Laura Tangley

Marbled salamander on leaf litter

IT'S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN: The air turns crisp, the leaves turn red and gold and homeowners turn to the annual chore known as “fall garden cleanup”—including disposal of those leaves after they fall to the ground.

Traditionally, leaf removal has entailed three steps: Rake leaves (or blast them with a blower) into piles, transfer the piles to bags and place the bags out to be hauled off to a landfill. Yet, increasingly, conservationists say these actions not only harm the environment but rob your garden of nutrients while destroying wildlife habitat. The alternative? “Let fallen leaves stay on your property says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski.

Leaves in Landfills

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste—a whopping 33 million tons a year. Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane, says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide. In fact, solid-waste landfills are the largest U.S. source of man-made methane—and that’s aside from the carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered blowers and trucks used in leaf disposal.

For gardeners, turning leaves into solid waste is wasteful. “Fallen leaves offer a double benefit,” Mizejewski says. “Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and fertilizes the soil as it breaks down. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?”

Removing leaves also eliminates vital wildlife habitat. Critters ranging from turtles and toads to birds, mammals and invertebrates rely on leaf litter for food, shelter and nesting material. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.

Need one more reason to leave the leaves? “The less time you spend raking leaves,” Mizejewski says, “the more time you’ll have to enjoy the gorgeous fall weather and the wildlife that visits your garden."

Fall leaves being raked and picked up

Every Litter Bit Counts

What should you do with all those fallen leaves you're not sending to the landfill? Here are some tips:

• Let leaves stay where they fall. They won't hurt your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower.

• Rake leaves off the lawn to use as mulch in garden beds. For finer-textured mulch, shred them first.

• Let leaf piles decompose; the resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention.

• Make compost: Combine fallen leaves (“brown material”) with grass clippings and other “green material” and keep moist and well mixed. You’ll have nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden next spring.

• Still too many leaves? Share them with neighbors, friends, schools and others. Some communities will pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.

• Build a brush shelter. Along with branches, sticks and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles that shelter native wildlife.

For more wildlife-gardening tips, visit www.nwf.org/garden.

Laura Tangley is senior editor of National Wildlife magazine.

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