It's that time of year again - the air is getting chilly, leaves are turning red and gold and we just can’t seem to help ourselves from wanting to tidy up the garden at the end of the season—raking, mowing, and blowing away a bit of nature that is essential to the survival of moths, butterflies, snails, spiders, and dozens of arthropods.
Avoid the tedious task of raking and bagging leaves and taking them to the landfill. The best way to reduce greenhouse gases and benefit your garden is to leave the leaves!
Part of the tree’s natural cycle
Leaf mulch is part of a tree’s natural cycle. It is nature’s way of recycling important nutrients and protecting the tree’s roots during the harsh winter months. Leaf mulch also fortifies soil by providing rotting stuff, which is the foundation of healthy soil.
Leaves and other organic matter insulate plant roots through the cold winter months and then decompose to build up living soil critical to healthy vegetation. This organic matter also stores large amounts of carbon, which is crucial to supporting a climate-resilient planet.
Habitat for beneficial insects and small animals
Many species of butterflies and moths, including our beloved luna moth, pupate and overwinter in leaves before emerging as stunning winged adults the following spring. Raking away the leaves is very disruptive to that life in the leaf litter. Leaf blowers are even more damaging, and also create noise pollution and use large amounts of fossil fuels – please discontinue this practice.
Many insects including Luna moths, Swallowtail butterflies, and Monarchs rely on leaf litter to camouflage their cocoons or provide cover during the winter. Bumblebee queens spend the winter only a few inches into the soil, so leaves add an extra layer of protection. Small beetles and snails use leaves as hiding spots from birds and squirrels searching for a snack. Remember that every member of a tree's ecosystem plays an important role in the health and well being of that plant... even the tiniest ones.
Leaves are an exceptionally valuable resource! They contain nutrients and organic matter that we should keep on site, instead of raking or blowing them from off our lawns and driveways and into the woods, or stuffing them into leaf collection bags to be taken off site. We can find more places for the leaves to go by shrinking our lawns, creating more planting space, and consolidating the excess leaves that fall outside our planting beds.
Using leaves as mulch for a planting bed is a free alternative to buying bark mulch or other expensive and harmful inputs such as fertilizers and dyed mulches. The space under a tree is an especially critical place to keep leaves since many butterfly and moth caterpillars drop down from trees into the leaf litter to pupate and overwinter. Let’s do what we can to keep this colorful natural blanket where it falls.
Shredded leaves can make a beautiful looking mulch for a more traditional planting bed. You can simply rake a pile of leaves in the lawn and mow over them several times, then toss them back into the garden bed
If you find the look of leaves unappealing as they turn brown, you can rake them into your beds and cover them in pine straw or wood chips. Doing this has the double benefit of adding nutrients to the soil while also providing a consistent, aesthetically pleasing look.
Leaves can be a great additive to a home compost pile, and by keeping a pile of it next to the compost, leaves can be used to cover layers of kitchen food waste throughout the winter. Fallen leaves can also be used to reclaim sections of the yard that are marginal, just by building a huge leaf pile there and letting it sit all winter. By the spring, the lower part of the leaf pile will be converted into rich soil, while the middle and top layers can be used as mulch or dug into spring garden beds as a soil amendment.
If you do need to clean up leaves in areas where it can't accumulate such as near gutters or walkways, opt for a rake - gas powered blowers contribute to air and noise pollution.
Small engine-based tools are a surprisingly large source of carbon emissions and air pollution. According to the California Air Resources Board, just one hour of gas leaf blower use is the equivalent of driving 1,100 miles. In fact, California recently passed a law, AB-1346, banning the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers starting in 2024. More than 100 cities and towns across the country already outlaw these machines.
Check out this helpful "Battery Electric Landscaping Equipment for Homeowners" video from the local Tri-Valley Air Quality Community Alliance. This 14 minute video describes the impact that landscaping equipment can have on air quality and offers equipment suggestions for homeowners that are better for them, their landscaping contractors, and the planet.
The Bottom Line
Need one more reason to leave the leaves? The less time you spend raking or blowing leaves, the more time you’ll have to enjoy the gorgeous fall and winter weather and the wildlife that visits your garden.
Sources & more info: