The Fall season brings beautiful shades of red, orange, and gold in the autumn leaves. But Fall is also the season of raking leaves and time-consuming yard cleanup. Why are we putting leaves out with the trash? 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—a whopping 33 million tons a year.
Fallen leaves, as an additional physical layer of organic materials above ground, provide food, shelter, and nesting or bedding materials to a variety of wildlife, as well as overwintering protection for a number of insects, all of which work together to contribute to a healthy yard.
Soil is renewed by the recycling of dead plant material providing natural fertilizer. There is no need to buy chemical fertilizer. Mowing over leaves on your lawn reduces them to small pieces, which helps them to decompose faster. As the leaves break down, they return nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
If you have too many leaves to mow, rake them into your flowers beds and around trees and use them as mulch. The leaves will suppress weeds, insulate the ground, and provide beneficial soil nutrients as they decompose. Tiny spiders and other invertebrates make homes in leaf litter. Birds need these food sources, especially during fall and winter.
Fallen leaves are a great location for overwintering caterpillars that will emerge as butterflies and moths the following year, and they are unlikely to survive if they are sent to the landfill. So, leaving the leaves can also protect and maintain biodiversity. The leaves also are a natural habitat for salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles, toads, shrews, earthworms and others. They lay eggs in the leaves and feed on and under the leaf layer. By raking or blowing leaves, you disrupt their life cycle and eliminate beneficial insects.
If the leaves must be disposed of, consider composting them on your own property instead of sending them to the landfill. Alternatively, you can designate a location in your yard to place leaves, sticks, twigs, and branches to provide wildlife habitat and shelter for the cold winter months.
Sources: National Wildlife Federation, Treehugger, Xerces Society