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For a Better Garden, Leave the Leaves

Allowing leaves to decompose naturally produces leaf mold, which improves soil structure and water retention. (maxbelchenko/Adobe Stock)
Allowing leaves to decompose naturally produces leaf mold, which improves soil structure and water retention. (maxbelchenko/Adobe Stock)
October 2, 2020

ALBANY, N.Y. - Conservation groups say one task most homeowners can take off their autumn to-do list is getting rid of all those leaves.

Autumn leaves are beautiful on the trees, but most people assume that once they're on the ground, it's time to get out the rake and leaf blower and send them off with the trash.

But according to David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, allowing some or all of those leaves to decompose naturally in a corner of your yard or using them to cover your garden is not only easier, it's the environmentally smart thing to do.

"You're going to be doing your plants a favor by providing that natural mulch protection and fertilizing them," said Mizejewski. "At the same time, that leaf litter is really, really important habitat for all sorts of wildlife."

He added that 33 million tons of leaves and other lawn debris put in plastic bags and sent to landfills every year generate methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as they decompose.

Mizejewski pointed out that many animals rely on fallen leaves for food, shelter and nesting materials. In fact, some are totally at home living right there in the leaf pile.

"Things like toads or box turtles, or salamanders," said Mizejewski. "Really, really cool animals. And they can happily coexist with us, right here in our own yards and gardens, if we just give them a little bit of space."

He said many insects, including moth and butterfly caterpillars, also take shelter in leaf piles, providing a major source of food for birds during the winter months.

And in the spring, Mizejewski said, 96% of backyard birds feed invertebrates to their young, most of which are caterpillars.

"We begin to see how all the dots get connected," said Mizejewski. "If you want to see more birds and butterflies in your yard, keeping some of the leaf litter is a really good thing to do."

For more information, look online at 'nwf.org,' and just type the word "leaves" into the search box.

Disclosure: National Wildlife Federation contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Energy Policy, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, Salmon Recovery, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY