Every fall, as leaves change colors and fall to the ground, many homeowners get to work diligently piling up their leaves, bagging them, and sending them off for disposal. While this annual clean-up of leaf litter has become part of the tradition of the changing seasons, there are actually numerous reasons to skip the raking and simply let the leaves remain where they fall! As leaves decompose, they become incorporated into the soil and help replenish soil nutrients. They also provide important winter habitat for pollinators and invertebrates.
How do decaying leaves help my yard?
- They cycle nutrients back into the soil, improving soil health.
The decaying leaves add organic matter to the soil, providing nutrients for the microbial communities and improving the structure of the soil. Organic matter is an important component of soil, along with minerals, water, and air. Having an appropriate amount of organic matter in the soil ensures that it maintains a healthy structure, with space for movement of air, water, and soil microbes. Fungi and bacteria in the soil work to break down plant matter, making the nutrients available to growing plants.
- They provide a free source of mulch.
Mulching is the practice of covering soil with organic matter, like leaves, bark, or compost, to provide insulation and enrich the composition of the soil. Decaying leaves are a great form of mulch, so if you have deciduousDeciduous Trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally. trees or shrubs in your yard, you have your own free mulch source! Covering the soil with mulch can reduce soil compaction and erosion, while helping keep weeds at bay and trapping moisture in the soil.
- They provide important winter habitat for pollinators and invertebrates.
Leaf litter provides excellent habitat for wildlife. Leaves can be used as nesting material, shelter, and food. For example, many moth and butterfly species rely on leaf litter to keep them warm throughout the winter. These resources are especially important in urban areas where natural habitat features are not as abundant.
Aside from the benefits to your yard, allowing leaves to decompose where they’ve fallen can greatly decrease the amount of space that organic material takes up in municipal landfills. The EPA estimated that in 2015, yard trimmings, which include leaf material, made up 13.3% of total municipal solid waste. That’s about 34.7 million tons (25% of which is leaf litter, by weight)! When yard trimmings are sent to waste facilities, their nutrients can’t be recycled back into the habitat that they were part of.
So, what can you do in your yard?
- Leave the leaves! You can let them stay right where they’ve fallen. It might take some time to adjust to the new aesthetic, but hopefully you’ll be able to see examples of wildlife taking advantage of the improved habitat.
- Going for a tidier look? Use the leaves as mulch in garden beds or around ornamental plants.
- Place leaves in your compost pile.
Be sure to check out the #leavetheleaves campaign on social media to see how others are improving soil and habitat in their yards by simply leaving the leaves alone.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are places where leaving leaf litter may impact safety. Leaves should be removed from walkways, driveways, and other walking surfaces where they could pose a hazard when wet and slippery. It is also helpful to make sure that storm drains stay clear of leaves so that they can properly handle any heavy rains.