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Put Down that Rake! What Leaves Can Do for You and Your Landscape

It’s that time of year when leaves seem to blanket everything in sight in much of the U.S., at least in locales where there is an abundance of deciduous trees and shrubs.  For years, homeowners have taken great care to remove every dead leaf from their landscapes as if those leaves were coated with toxic waste.  An army of rakes and leaf blowers burst into action in the fall, filling countless leaf bags, left at the end of driveways like yesterday’s trash, waiting to be hauled away.  As hours of time, money and energy are depleted, landfills pile up.

By the end of fall, in many suburban landscapes, you can barely tell that trees have ever had any leaves at all, as no evidence remains on the ground.  All that raking and leaf blowing results in bare, compacted soil, the enemy of healthy plant growth.  In the spring, to remedy the now-lousy soil, landscape contractors and able-bodied homeowners set about filling their naked plant beds with newly purchased mulch and compost, covering the barren earth where the leaves once fell.  And so it goes, year after year.

The great irony?  Those fallen leaves are actually nature’s mulch and compost, valuable and costly to replace.  Where I live, a bag of shredded bark mulch can easily sell for $8 and compost for even more.

As leaves decompose they unleash important nutrients into the soil, part of a nutrient cycle that is required by healthy ecosystems where deciduous trees and shrubs dominate. But leaves do even more than that:

– Decaying leaves help to retain moisture in the soil and capture rainwater so that it can infiltrate and supply tree roots – critical for plant health and protection from wildfire damage.

– Leaves help maintain soil chemistry and fertility which dictate what plants can grow, and in turn, what creatures will be supported – critical to ecosystem balance and health.

– Leaves help protect the soil from erosion, so important in the face of extreme weather events and flooding.

– Layers of leaves act to suppress weeds, just as purchased mulch does, but they are free!

– “Leaf litter” – those nice layers of decomposing leaves, serve as habitat, cover and foraging areas for many creatures. Numerous amphibians, reptiles, and even some birds and mammals use leaf litter as their home and their buffet.

– Many insects overwinter in leaf litter. Insects are part of a food web and lunch for many creatures. The vast majority of land birds feed insects to their young. If you don’t have insects you can’t support birds. Period.

– Leaf litter supports millions of small organisms, including bacteria and fungi, nematodes and springtails, millipedes and insect larvae which eat their way through the leaves, breaking down their carbon compounds, releasing nutrients into the soil.

So, think twice before you trash those leaves. Here are some ways to “manage” your leaves if you have an overabundance of them, or don’t want to kill your lawn (I will try to convince you to kill and replace your lawn another time).

– Leave leaves alone in any wooded areas. They are doing their job and not bothering anyone.

– In managed plant beds, try to leave leaves in place, as well.  If the depth of leaves is truly overwhelming: remove some leaves, pile them up, run them over with a mulching lawnmower, and put them back in the plant bed.  The volume of leaves will be greatly diminished and the leaf bits will decompose more quickly.

– If you have a lawn full of leaves, in most cases you can use a mulching mower and run over the leaves in place.  The tiny leaf pieces will decompose and add nutrients to your lawn.  If you want to keep your lawn, make sure it is not smothered, but rather “sprinkled” with leaves. To avoid smothering, collect some leaves, mulch them and use them in another part of your landscape.

– When the above approaches are not sufficient, then buy or build a compost bin and start making your own fabulous compost – don’t forget to add “green material.”  Most local extensions have great online information on how to compost.

– If you don’t have a mulching mower (perhaps you are my hero and have no lawn, and no need for one), then rent or borrow an outdoor shredder or a wood chipper to shred those leaves.

– You might live “downstream” of some neighbors with huge trees and wind up with all of their leaves.  If you are buried in more leaves than you know what to do with, mulch some leaves and sell them to your “upstream” neighbors next spring when they are looking to buy mulch and compost!

Enjoy Nature’s Gold! From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial

Photo: Nature’s compost getting ready
Photo credit: Flickr/timpeartrice