Green Tip – Leaf Litter

by Wendy Gabriel

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GREEN TIP: Don’t bag your fallen leaves, use them as mulch. Leaf Litter is an essential habitat element for wildlife. It’s good for the environment and saves you money on mulch.

According to Carole Brown, a Conservation Biologist, the practice of removing our yard waste to landfills is enormously unsustainable:

  • We spend endless hours raking, blowing, and bagging the leaves that fall every year.
  • The use of leaf blowers is a source of noise pollution and air pollution, and uses large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuel.
  • These huge piles are hauled away by truck, using more gasoline and causing more air pollution.
  • Often this organic yard material is dumped into landfills, which destroys wildlife habitat.
  • Then we have mulch trucked in to replace the benefits of the leaves we just hauled away.
  • And we replace the nutrients that were freely available from the decomposition of those leaves with synthetic fertilizers, which are another petroleum product.

This cycle cannot be sustained without causing increasing damage to our environment. It is much more sustainable to manage this yard waste on our own properties.

Fortunately, this is very easy to do and also returns nutrients to the soil, provides habitat for many organisms, and ensures healthy plants.

Carole piles up her leaves in every one of her flower beds, sometimes more than two feet deep. In the spring she takes a hand rake and loosen the leaves around her emerging plants, which hide the leaves during the growing season. By the time the next leaves fall, the old leaves have completely decomposed and the soil is ready for a new blanket.

Why do this?

  • There is a cycle of life contained in the leaf litter and we destroy many forms of wildlife every time we remove these leaves.
  • Many butterflies find shelter in the leaf litter, either in egg, pupal, or adult form, to safely wait out the winter and emerge in the spring.
  • Leaf litter provides food and shelter to an amazing variety of invertebrates who break down the leaves, which feeds the soil and other wildlife.
  • Healthy plants are dependent on healthy soil.
  • The deeper the leaf litter, the more spiders are supported. Spiders are an essential element in keeping pest insects in balance.
  • Leaf litter is also home to ladybugs, salamanders, toads, and other predators of pest insects. It is no wonder that pests like aphids thrive when we continue to destroy the habitat of the predators that would keep them under control.
  • Every spring these leaves are covered with birds who pick through the leaves in search of a tasty meal.
  • Trucked in mulch is not necessary when the leaves are left to cover the soil because the leaf litter acts as a natural blanket of mulch, controlling soil moisture and temperature.

There are many gardeners who cannot bear the thought of even one leaf creating a “mess” in their pristine garden beds. But it’s easy to tuck the leaves under your shrubs or in a back corner where they can work their magic and leave your sense of tidyness intact. Or leaves can be composted and then spread over your soil so at least the natural nutrients can be returned to the soil.

The benefits to your local wildlife far outweigh any need for neatness.

Source: Ecosystem Gardening

My Green Side’s weekly website pick:The Garden Conservancy
The Garden Conservancy dedicates itself to restoring and maintaining public and private gardens throughout the country.


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  1. Alison Kerr’s avatar

    Yesterday there was a whole group of robins in my garden poking around in the leaf litter and no doubt finding tasty snacks to maintain them during migration. Today I look out in my street to see almost every home with a stack of leaf bags left for the garbage truck. How sad!

  2. Marghanita Hughes’s avatar

    Our backyard is covered in pine needles but we have several Maples in the front yard. We collect our leaves for the compost, leaving some for the birds to forage. I can’t understand why anyone would use a leaf blower – how sad! Part of the fun is raking the leaves up. Back in Scotland we would build leaf piles for the hedgehogs.

    Thanks Wendy for another great post!

  3. Lyz’s avatar

    This is one of those ideas that those who live on farms probably have always done…

    ..but what about those of us who don’t have garden beds (yet)? Even the shrubs in our yard have landscaping rocks around them, and we have several large trees providing lots of leaves…

    Also, I believe that yard waste (at least here in Fargo) goes to a mulching site for the city, and people can pick it up for free.

    I’m thinking of starting a compost pile sometime in the future.:)


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