Why Leaves Are Not Litter

By Mary Gumerov, Assistant Uplift Crew Leader


We often discuss how native plants support pollinators, strengthen the local ecosystem, and lower maintenance costs as natives require less watering and specialized care. But did you know you can provide similar benefits to your local wildlife by not raking leaves this fall?

Uncovering a thick layer of leaves on the forest floor reveals a world teeming with life: insects, worms, and spiders dwell in leaves that feed birds, turtles, and small mammals. Pregnant bumble bees burrow an inch deep in the ground and use the leaf litter to shelter from harsh weather and predators as they hibernate through the winter. Butterflies and moths rest during the cold months in fallen leaves as an egg, caterpillar, or adult in a process called overwintering. Life on the forest floor also loosens and enriches the soil as these creatures dwell, burrow, and break down the fallen leaves.


Homeowners assume that leaving behind leaf litter during the winter months would damage their turfgrass come spring. Indeed, turfgrass cannot withstand thick layers of leaf litter found in forests. But, keeping a layer of leaves fewer than two inches deep would not harm turfgrass. In fact, it would benefit from the leaves’ natural ability to act as a weed suppressant, mulch, and fertilizer while supporting local wildlife.



Excess leaves can be raked into garden beds and gathered around trees, shrubs, and perennials to add insulation from potential frost damage. Or, leaf litter can be composted by collecting them into large piles and letting the leaves decompose—the resulting leaf mold is an excellent soil amendment for spring gardens.

Pictured is the American Moon Moth (Actias luna) as a caterpillar. It plans to cocoon in the leaf litter and emerge as an adult with a wingspan of up to 4 inches in April.

Leaving behind leaf litter would also significantly reduce the waste of resources and pollution from district-wide leaf collection and processing. Not only is there a considerable cost in transporting yard waste in large municipal trucks, but also organic matter, including leaf litter and food waste, can constitute up to 70% of a municipality's total solid waste. Without oxygen to support the breakdown of organic matter, the leaves brought into landfills emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas with more than 25 times the warming power than carbon dioxide. According to a UN seminal report published last May, reducing methane emissions is the fastest and most effective way to slow climate change.



When we treat our leaves as litter to be bagged and hauled away, we destroy an essential source of food and shelter for wildlife and contribute to needless greenhouse gas emissions. So, leave the leaves, and conserve your own inner resources this fall as you enjoy more free time from less yard work.





Sources:


Why You Should Leave the Leaves:

https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2015/OctNov/Gardening/Leave-the-Leaves


Leave the Leaves!

https://www.ecolandscaping.org/10/developing-healthy-landscapes/ecological-landscaping-101/leave-the-leaves/


Municipal Curbside Compostables Collection What Works and Why:

https://dusp.mit.edu/sites/dusp.mit.edu/files/attachments/project/Municipal%20Curbside%20Compostables%20Collection%20%20What%20Works%20and%20Why.pdf


Your Trash Is Emitting Methane In The Landfill. Here's Why It Matters For The Climate:

https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1012218119/epa-struggles-to-track-methane-from-landfills-heres-why-it-matters-for-the-clima


Global Assessment: Urgent steps must be taken to reduce methane emissions this decade

https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/global-assessment-urgent-steps-must-be-taken-reduce-methane





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