Leave the Leaves

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It’s fall and the leaves are decaying from their rainbow of reds, yellow, and oranges, and of course falling.

But should you leave the leaves on the ground? The simple answer is yes, you should in most places. But this might be a challenge for some of you conditioned to perceive leaves as a “mess” in your yard that need to be removed.
A more nuanced approach to leaves is part of natural landscape practices with the object to support ecosystem health and balance. By applying a natural approach to fall “clean-up”, there is less work and it’s aimed differently.
First we’ll cover why to leave the leaves, and then we’ll give you fall clean-up recommendations for what you should still do.

Why Leave the Leaves (deciduous and conifer needles)?

As we plant more native plants in our yards and want to attract more birds and pollinators, transitioning to natural landscaping practices like leaving leaves in place protects our plants and what we’re attracting.
Here’s why:
For the Plants and Soil. Nutrients and organic matter are recycled naturally from decaying leaves to the soil and back to plants. Remove the leaves, and you interrupt the natural recycling process. Leaves are also a natural mulch (for “free”), protecting plants through the winter and suppressing undesired weeds in early spring. The alternative of purchasing mulch and fertilizer not only costs money, but can be an incorrect match for soil and plant needs.
For Arthropods. Insects and spiders survive winter in immature stages (a few species overwinter as adults). To complete their life cycle, many eggs, pupa, and larvae (including caterpillars) must survive the freezing temperatures of winter in the soil or leaf litter. If you’re creating a native plant habit for wildlife, many of next year’s insects are in the leaf litter or protected by its insulating effect on the ground.
For Larger Wildlife. Food, cover, and shelter from leaves and other plant debris left on the ground support wildlife. Birds and mammals rely on winter food sources of seeds, fruits, and even immature insects that are on the ground with leaves. Some salamanders and frogs remain in the leaf litter while toads burrow into the ground. Predators like owls and fox hunt the mammals to feed their young in late winter. Come spring, birds use the debris for nesting material, and will locate their nests where they can find a reliable source of insect larvae for nestlings. No food source – no baby birds!
For the Environment and You. No unnecessary fossil fuel usage, no noise pollution from blowers, no undesirable landfill additions. By letting nature do its thing, you are reducing your carbon footprint, and there is less work for you.
Examples of natural habitat: