Leave the Leaves

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Polyphemus moth on screen

Polyphemus moths overwinter in fallen leaves

At last, autumn has arrived, after what seems like an interminable summer. Leaves are beginning to change and will soon be falling. Some people enjoy the annual ritual of raking up leaves, possibly burning them or leaving them on the curb for pickup. For others, it’s a dreaded chore. If you are in the latter category, take heart: scientists at the National Wildlife Federation have come out urging homeowners to “leave the leaves” – don’t rake them up, let them stay on the ground, gradually decomposing throughout fall and winter. The Federation has several reasons to encourage this. First, raking leaves (or using a leaf blower, which has the added negative of fuel usage and noise pollution) for the purpose of having them go to the landfill is a problem. Leaves taking up space in the landfill is a waste of valuable and increasingly limited space. The problem isn’t just an inefficient use of space, however: according to the Wildlife Federation, 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 takes up 13% of the solid waste of the entire country, about 33 million tons per year. What if there was another way to manage fall leaves so they didn’t take up landfill space, creating methane?

There are actually multiple benefits of “leaving the leaves”. Fallen leaves create a natural mulch, less expensive than buying pinestraw, pinebark, or other purchased mulches. Like mulches you have to pay for, the leaves suppress weeds, hold in moisture, and gradually break down, adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. The best leaves for a mulch or compost pile are maple, which break down easily. Oak and sycamore leaves take a while to break down. These type of leaves could be put in a heavy duty trash bag and set out of sight somewhere, and in a year or two they will break down and be great mulch. For these benefits alone – freeing up landfill space, reducing methane gas production, serving as natural mulch, soil improvements- it would be well worth it to leave the leaves. There is yet another reason to let the leaves fall where they may: wildlife benefits. Leaf litter provide essential habitat for many different animals. Turtles, toads, birds, mammals, and many invertebrates use leaf litter for food, shelter, and nesting material. Many butterfly and moth species, such as the Polyphemus moth pictured above, rely on the protection of fallen leaves for overwintering.

The National Wildlife Federation has tips for making the most of your fallen leaves.

  • If having a perfect lawn is a priority, the leaves can be raked off the lawn and into flower and shrub beds. In the past it was often recommended to use the mower to chop up fallen leaves, as finer mulch that will break down more quickly. However, better understanding of the value of leaves for wildlife encourages us to keep leaves whole.
  • If you’d rather not have leaves heaped in your shrub or flower beds, leaves can be piled in an out of the place in the back of the lawn and allowed to break down properly down slowly, and then spread as mulch or in the vegetable garden in a year or so.
  • Make a brush shelter for wildlife: in an out of the way place in your yard, combine 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. Brush piles provide valuable habitat for pollinator insects which borrow into the wood, for birds, and amphibians and reptiles such as toads and lizards.

When the leaves begin to fall this year, consider the benefits of keeping them around.

Polyphemus moth on screen

Polyphemus moths overwinter in fallen leaves

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!

Paige Burns is an Assistant Horticulture Agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Richmond County. You may reach Paige at her office at 123 Carolina Street in Rockingham, NC; by phone at 910.997.8255, or e-mail paige_burns@ncsu.edu.

Written By

Paige Burns, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionPaige BurnsCounty Extension Director & Extension Agent, Agriculture - Horticulture Call Paige Email Paige N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center
Updated on Jan 9, 2023
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