Drop the Rake!
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Looking out at your lawn you might see an endless chore list that involves raking and bagging leaves. According to a 2005 NASA survey, there are around 40 million acres of lawn in the continental United States – making turf grass the single largest “crop” we grow. That’s 40 million fewer acres for nature to take its course. This disproportionate ratio of lawn to garden is the main reason we rake, mow, and blow. Leaving those leaves does much more than you think and will cut down on that pesky chore list!
What might be one of the most underused parts of a tree would be its free organic matter that they share with us every fall…their leaves! With so many piles of leaves, I see neatly or sometimes not so neatly, raked and bagged for towns and cities to collect from their residents, I wonder if people know what (mostly) brown gold quite literally lays at their fingertips!
Lawns vs. Leaves
This is one of the popular questions when it comes to leaving your leaves. Do leaves hurt my lawn? Leaves are not the nemesis of lawns. Research has shown that lawns actually benefit from a thin layer of leaves, and the rest of the leaves can be piled up around ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials.
But, what if your yard has many trees in it? Well, if your yard has a lot of trees in it, you probably aren’t growing a good stand of turf anyways. This is because grass needs full sun to grow properly. If you have too much shade, you are probably fighting poor germination, weeds, and other things because of weak turf due to the amount of shade. So, if your yard has a lot of trees, use the leaves to your advantage!
Uses of Leaves
Leaves provide necessary organic matter and build up healthy soil. Fallen leaves have the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties as shredded wood mulch—and they’re free! To use leaves as you would landscaping mulch, it’s best to leave them whole and not shred them.
If you are a gardener or farmer, you know how invaluable organic matter is to our soils! Organic matter is made up of decomposed animal and plant matter, including leaves! Your soil benefits because organic matter improves soil structure and provides essential nutrients to whatever is growing in your soil.
Do you struggle with soil compaction, soil fertility, poor drainage, etc.? Anybody who has tried to garden in clay soil has run into these problems. Adding a couple of inches of organic matter to your clay can drastically improve these issues.
To use leaves as a source of organic matter, you can shred them so that they’ll decompose faster, or you can rake them into a pile and let them decompose on their own. If you are going to use whole leaves, leave them in a pile to let them age first before applying them to plants. Those shredded leaves can be put to use almost immediately, though. Use them around blueberry plants, azaleas, trees, other shrubs, and flowers.
Quoting from the Xerces Society’s article on Leave the Leaves, “When you think of what these animals need, it is best to visualize natural areas where they have evolved. Natural areas are not manicured, sticks and leaves are not ‘cleaned up’ and removed, grasses grow long, seed heads are left for songbirds to feed on, and seeds can fall where they might germinate.
Now visualize your yard. Do you have any of the messiness of the local natural area? If not, you are likely not providing for all of the important insects that help pollinate your plants, provide pest control in your garden, and help build healthy soils.”
If areas in your yard can handle piles of leaves being left, leave them. This is because many species rely on fallen leaves for cover and to insulate them from the elements. Depending on the species, butterflies and moths spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars, pupae, or adults. Leaving leaves where they fall provides this habitat for them!
To use your leaves as a habitat for our local critters, you can leave the leaves where they fall and spend the free time you now have laughing at your neighbors repeating the mistakes you used to make with your leaves. Or, you can use that free time to build a brush shelter. Along with branches, sticks, and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles that shelter native wildlife. And those piles, too, will slowly decompose and provide you with some nice compost in a few years.
For most people, the “leave the leaves” mindset does not mean ignoring them and leaving them where they fell. It means you have a choice in how you clean your leaves up. You can move them to places in your yard where they are out of the way, will not kill your turf, and will still help wildlife!
This fall, don’t spend your time raking and bagging up this awesome resource! Use it to your and your local habitats’ advantage.
I encourage you to do your own research on Leave the Leaves.