It’s fall. The weather is cooling down, leaves are falling off trees and people are destroying ecosystems. Wait, what?
I see this a lot. People spend hours of time and unnecessary labor raking up leaves or using a leaf blower to “clean up the yard”. They then unceremoniously shove all the yard trimmings, dead leaves, sticks, etc. in plastic or paper bags to be hauled to the dump. Even eco-minded folks make this mistake by tossing it all in the green (organics) bin to be hauled away.
Often they then go out and buy prepared mulch and soil conditioners to replace what they literally just threw away! Please don’t do this. Instead, place the contents of the green bin in your own compost pile/bin/container and let it break down.
If you simply can’t compost and you have municipal composting, you can often get a truckload of processed compost for cheap or even free. Unlike composting your own yard trimmings on site, because this is city-wide, you will have residual pesticides and herbicides in the mix that you import back.
Either way, you save money, time, and energy by not paying for bagged materials. You lower your carbon footprint by not having all of the embodied energy of long-distance hauling, shipping, and manufacturing. It also cuts down on waste, since you won’t have to throw away the bags either.
Why is this such a big deal?
Leaf mulch is part of a tree’s natural life cycle. The tree roots spend the year gathering nutrients and sending them up to the leaves. In the fall, these nutrient rich leaves fall from the branches and blanket the ground below providing a natural slow-release fertilizer for the tree’s continued growth.
This layer slowly breaks down over the winter from freeze/ thaw cycles, insect and microbial activity, in the process making the amazing soil conditioner known as leaf mould (alternatively spelled mold). Ever walk in a forest and notice the ground under your feet feels springy, like a shock absorber? That’s because of leaf mould. The cushy layer of soil retains moisture but drains well, ensuring plants get adequate water but don’t drown. It also preserves the critical gas exchange needed by microbes in a healthy, living soil since they are aerobic soil organisms.
This blanket of organic materials provides much-needed habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. Species like butterflies, fireflies, praying mantis, salamanders, chipmunks, hedgehogs, box turtles, toads, shrews, earthworms, and ladybugs rely on leaves.
Many of the good bugs lay eggs in the leaves and feed on and under the leaf layer, breaking it down and releasing nutrients back to the tree. This slowly decomposing leaf layer also protects the roots of the tree by acting as a temperature buffer. The air trapped in the leaf layer acts as an insulator. This prevents the sometimes radical temperature swings from freezing the cells in the feeder roots.
Leave the leaves!
If you absolutely cannot stand the sight of them or the location they are is not safe for them to remain (an entryway for example) simply gather them up and use them as mulch around plants that you can’t see the base of. Don’t pile any type of mulch against the stem of a plant. It holds water against it and invites fungal diseases and stem, crown, or root rot, which will eventually kill the plant.