Fallen leaves provide valuable wildlife habitat while helping return important nutrients to the land.

With the crisp autumn air comes the cacophony of mowing and blowing as homeowners chase down and remove fallen leaves from their manicured lawns. Perfect piles of golden leaves line every suburban street, waiting to be collected by trucks more obnoxious than leaf blowers. Some see fall cleanup as ritualistic. But we see fall cleanup as something more sinister.

Homeowners dispose of over 30 million tons of yard waste each year. This accounts for 13% of landfill waste. Fallen leaves make up much of this waste.

Luna moths, a species of moth that needs fallen leaves for pupation

Don’t be a leaf thief

In addition to providing much needed nutrients for healthy soils, fallen leaves provide warm and safe homes for overwintering animals including turtles, toads, bats, and birds. In fact, many invertebrates, including worms, snails, millipedes, beetles, mites, bumblebees, butterflies and moths rely on leaf litter for winter survival. A few specific Lepidoptera species that need leaves include luna moths, meadow fritillaries, silvery checkerspot butterflies, and red-banded hairstreaks.

While the benefits of leaf mulch for wildlife are clear, fallen leaves are equally important to trees. Fallen leaves create an insulated layer of organic material that helps protect a tree’s roots during the cold winter months. 

To mulch or not to mulch?

Many “leave the leaves” advocates recommend mow-mulching your leaves. Mowing over your leaves can help break them down into smaller pieces, expediting their decomposition. But mulching or mowing your leaves can destroy wildlife habitat and injure or kill overwintering animals. Mulch mindfully and only when raking or natural decomposition is not an option.

How to manage your fallen leaves

Worried about leaves smothering your lawn? Consider raking them into garden beds or find an inconspicuous place in your yard to pile them as they decompose. You can also spread a layer of leaves over food waste in your compost pile.

In the spring and summer, use your leaf mulch as natural fertilizer in your yard and garden. Chemical fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to harmful algal blooms by running off into waterways. Leaf mulch is a natural and safe alternative. And bonus, it’s free!

What you can do:

  • If you’re not worried about smothering your lawn, leave your leaves as they lie
  • If you’re worried about killing your grass, or if you have an HOA that mandates leaf removal, rake your leaves into garden beds or an inconspicuous spot in your yard where they can break down naturally
  • Opt for a rake instead of a leaf blower. Not only is raking a great physical workout, it’s healthier for the environment than a gas-powered leaf blower.
  • Keep an eye on areas of your landscape and nearby areas where leaves may pose problems. Remove leaves from storm drains to prevent blockages and sidewalks to prevent falls.

Additional Reading and Resources

Leave the Leaves! (Xerces website)

Why You Should Leave the Leaves (National Wildlife Federation website)

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