Leave the Leaves

— Written By and last updated by Leeann Crump
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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 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 wildlife habitat to many different animals. Turtles, toads, birds, mammals, and many invertebrates use leaf litter for food, shelter, and nesting material. Many butterfly and moth species rely on the protection of fallen leaves for overwintering.

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

  • For the lawn: some leaves are fine on the lawn, especially if they have been run over with the lawn mower to chop the leaves into small pieces. They will decompose and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, to improve lawn growing conditions.
  • If having a perfect lawn is a priority, the leaves can be raked off the lawn and into flower and shrub beds. Again, for a finer mulch that will break down more quickly, run over the leaves first with the lawn mower to chop them up.
  • Leaves can also be composted. In a compost pile, fall leaves represent the “brown” (carbon), versus “green” (nitrogen) matter, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste. The brown to green ratio in the compost pile should be approximately 25:1 in order for the pile to create adequate heat and break down properly.
  • 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.

As the leaves begin to fall this year, consider the benefits of letting them stay on the ground. 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.