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Why experts recommend ‘leaving the leaves’ and how to do it 

It is peak autumn and the leaves are just starting to fall. Before you rush to clear your yard of this natural carpet, consider the ecological wonders that lie within. Fallen leaves are not just seasonal debris. They play a crucial role in supporting local wildlife and nourishing your garden.

Leaves: A Haven for Wildlife

Leaf litter is a vital habitat for numerous species, including bees, butterflies, moths, fireflies, frogs, and a host of other critters. Many butterfly and moth species overwinter in the leaf layer, including luna moths, great spangled fritillaries, and woolly bear caterpillars. These insects play vital roles as pollinators. 

Numerous bird species also forage in the leaf layer, seeking insects and invertebrates to feed on.

Raking away all your leaves could result in the loss of their critical habitat. By avoiding the practices of mowing and leaf blowing leaves, you can also protect the cocoons and microhabitats they create.

Recognizing the significance of leaf litter and declining populations of pollinators, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has even designated October as “Leave the Leaves” month, and many naturalists and gardening experts now recommend leaving leaves. But what does this mean in practice?

Approaches to “Leaving the Leaves”

Leaving leaves in your yard will look different for everyone, and finding the right balance is key. 

Homegrown National Park recommends trying these approaches to not only support wildlife but nourish your yard over the winter:

  1. Leave them where they fall
  2. Rake them into existing garden beds
  3. Pile them to make existing beds larger or make new garden beds
  4. Mulch around trees and shrubs
  5. Scatter into a wooded area
  6. Save them to use as browns in a compost pile
  7. Pile them together to create a passive compost pile

A thick layer of leaves can block sunlight and kill grass so it’s not recommended to leave a thick layer of leaves in areas where you need lawn. Additionally, if you add leaves to garden beds, do not cover existing plants.

To reduce wind-blown leaves, the NWF recommends getting them wet with a garden hose to weigh them down. 

You can even purchase “leave the leaves” signs from the Xerces Society and Grow Native! to help educate your neighbors.

By trying these practices, you can turn fallen leaves into a valuable resource for your garden while reducing waste and minimizing environmental harm.

Other recommended alternatives

Whatever you decide to try in your yard, it’s recommended to avoid burning leaf litter, and to keep it away from storm drains and out of landfills. Fortunately, in Missouri, yard waste is banned from landfills, and Johnson County, Kansas, prohibits yard waste from entering landfills.

If your trees are large and leaf piles are high, take advantage of city services that will collect and compost them for you. Many local cities are now collecting leaf and brush waste that will be sent to large composting sites and turned into mulch and compost.

Another way to reap the benefit of excess leaves is to leave them on the lawn and mow over them. This can be accomplished with up to an inch of fallen leaves at a time. Mulched leaves and grass clippings return nutrients to the soil and can eliminate the need for fertilizing. Keep in mind that this approach can potentially harm insects and other wildlife hidden in the leaf litter.

Bringing nature back to our neighborhoods 

By trying new ways of managing fallen leaves, you can contribute to a more sustainable and ecologically friendly approach to yard care. So this autumn, consider leaving the leaves and letting nature take its course. 


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