|Photo by Luke Smith|
Savvy gardeners know that keeping fallen leaves on their property benefits wildlife and the environment. It’s that time of year again. The air turns crisp, the leaves turn red and gold and homeowners turn to the annual chore, raking leaves and disposing of them after they fall to the ground.
Traditionally, leaf removal entailed three steps: Rake leaves (or blast them with a blower) into piles, transfer the piles to bags and place the bags out to be hauled off to a landfill. Conservationists say these actions not only harm the environment but rob your garden of nutrients while destroying wildlife habitat. What is the alternative? “Let fallen leaves stay on your property,” says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski.
Leaves in Landfills
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste or 33 million tons a year! Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane, says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide. Solid-waste landfills are the largest U.S. source of man-made methane, and that’s aside from the carbon dioxide generated by gas-powered blowers and trucks used in leaf disposal.
For gardeners, turning leaves into solid waste is wasteful. “Fallen leaves offer a double benefit,” Mizejewski says. “Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and fertilizes the soil as they decompose. Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?”
Leaves and Wildlife
Removing leaves also eliminates vital wildlife habitat. Critters ranging from turtles and toads to birds, mammals and invertebrates rely on leaf litter for food, shelter and nesting material. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.
Every Litter Bit Counts
What should you do with all those fallen leaves you're not sending to the landfill?
• Let leaves stay where they fall. They won't hurt your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower.
• Rake leaves off the lawn to use as mulch in garden beds. For finer-textured mulch, shred them first.
• Let leaf piles decompose; the resulting leaf compost can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention.
• Make compost: Combine fallen leaves (“brown material”) with grass clippings and other “green material” and keep moist and well mixed. You’ll have nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden next spring.
• Check with your community government. Some communities will pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.
• Build a brush shelter. Along with branches, sticks and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles that shelter wildlife.