Leave The Leaves — Especially The Native Ones!

Leave The Leaves

It’s that time of year when we are told to “leave the leaves.” It seems too that more people are becoming aware of the importance of building local habitat for our insects, birds, amphibians and reptiles, and the role fallen leaves play in this.

We shot a couple of PSAs to bring home that message:

Leave The Leaves To Feed Your Trees
Leave The Leaves and Feed The Root

Here are some shots around the yard. This year we are letting everything wilt and decay in place.

Leave The Leaves — And The Rest Too!

We want to take “Leave The Leaves” to the next level this year. We are leaving the stalks and the seed heads. These plant parts provide food and habitat for overwintering wildlife. Plus there is little funnier than watching a Carolina Wren trying to perch on the Echinacea:

Leave The Leaves Just Where They Fell

We also leave the leaves right beneath the tree or bush that dropped them. The reason is simple: The purpose of fallen leaves are to provide winter insulation, moisture, and nutrients as the leaves decay. One could even say that fallen leaves are part of the means by which plants create habitat for themselves. Put it another way: Your plants will do best if they are in a bed of their own leaves. So leave the leaves — right where they fell!

Red Maples aka Swamp Maples create pits on one side to gather moisture as they collect leaves, providing the tree with water and nutrients during dry spells and insulating the roots in winter.

Pit and Mound Around A Red Maple

Leave The Lifeless Lawn

There’s a gorgeous organic chaos when we “leave the leaves.” It stands much apart from the aggressive normality we otherwise see in suburbia with their leafless and therefore lifeless yards.

Leave The Leaves
Living Against Nature

“Nothing to eat here!” — the birds largely avoid these yards. The fertilizer, the mowing and of course the pesticides all but assure there will be no fireflies or cicadas here in summer. They are dead in the soil, rendered toxic to them. The typical suburban lawn provides little sustenance for native insects, birds, and other wildlife. Kentucky Bluegrass is Eurasian, and is considered an invasive species in the Great Plains. In surburbia, they are ecological dead zones.

We Used to Leave The Leaves

It’s as though any sign of Nature must be swept away from our yards. It’s why our neighborhoods are a constant din of leaf blowers and lawn mowers. It wasn’t always this way. We actually played in them!

Leaves Belong Where They Land

To leave the leaves today is somehow considered shameful, slovenly, like having a lawn you aren’t mowing every three days, or not washing your car weekly.

Deciding to “Leave the Leaves”

It should be an easy decision to leave the leaves. There must be things you’d rather be doing. And it will save money. No black plastic bags to get dumped in a landfill. One less task for you or a landscaping company to do. So from an immediate, practical point of view, having leaves removed from your property is a waste of time and money. But there are so many other reasons, of course.

Man with book resting in comfortable hammock at green garden and not mowing or raking

Leave The Leaves To The Trees That Dropped Them

Leaving the leaves will of course benefit local nature by providing habitat, but with certain caveats that are rarely mentioned. Leave the leaves just where they fell — under whatever tree or bush they came from. That is where Nature intended they stay. The leaves will hold moisture and insulate the roots, and as they decay provide nutrients to the plant they fell from.

As leaves are where trees store the bulk of their nutrients, decaying leaf matter is about the best food that tree could obtain. Nonetheless, we feel impelled to have it all raked up or blown into leaf bags for a landfill, only to wonder later why our trees and bushes aren’t thriving. They need fertilizer and water, we are told. Well, now they do. Let’s not call it “leaf litter.” Call it probiotics for plants.

Sassafras Leaves

Leaves help plants build habitat around themselves, changing soil composition, ph, the ability to hold moisture. The competition between plants is fierce. Dropping leaves is a means by which they attempt to establish territory. Which other plants are growing here? Plant communities arise. Note how the needles of conifers are often near to the leaves of the oak. Their soil requirements are similar.

If you leave the leaves, you allow Nature to evolve. A marsh becomes a meadow, a meadow a forest. Trees and shrubs establish groves. A yard denuded of leaves is frozen, stunted, sickly. Not everyone is comfortable with the seeming chaos Nature brings with it, would be more comfortable living in Barbieland

Don’t Leave These Leaves! They Are Not Native

There are some leaves you don’t want dropping in your yard — Norway Maples are invasive, and will spread in part because they have so many leaves and seedpods to drop. Plants will release chemicals to inhibit the growth of other plants around them in any case. We don’t want invasive or non-native plants claiming real estate in our yards even from their leaves. If the local soil biome is being fed with by plants that are non-native, how does that effect the overall ecosystem?

Norway Maple Leaves

Leave These Leaves: Oaks

There are some leaves you definitely want to leave — oaks in particular. Oak leaves are a major forest feeder. They act then as a slow release food source for the trees and specialized habitat for an array of insects, amphibians and reptiles. There are at least a half dozen species of oak native to Long Island.

Oaks will often hold their leaves through the winter. The leaves, high in tannins, are tough to digest. The leaves defend the trees against foraging. It also takes two years for oak leaves to decay, so that they can provide nutrients, water, and protection for an oak grove for that extended period, which helps when there are droughts. To learn more about how important oaks are to our forests and to building habitats, we recommend reading Prof. Douglas Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees.

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