It’s a hard habit to break, that fall garden cleanup. It may be a habit or a holdover of outdated gardening practices from yesteryear. Somehow, we just can’t seem to help ourselves from wanting to tidy up the garden at the end of the season – raking, mowing, and blowing away a bit of nature that is essential to the survival of moths, bees, butterflies, snails, spiders, and other valuable invertebrates.

That’s why we are making the case for leaving the leaves and offering suggestions about what to do with them.

Leaves provide cover

We all know about the annual Monarch butterfly migration, but this is an exception in nature: most butterflies and other pollinators overwinter near where they grew up. The majority of butterflies and moths take cover in the landscape as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult. In all but the warmest places, these butterflies use leaf litter for winter cover. In addition to butterflies, bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements. There are many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food. All of these creatures are important contributors to the web of life and make your yard a healthier habitat for wildlife. 

Lawns

NASA estimates there are around 40 million acres of lawn in the continental U.S., making turf grass our single largest “crop.” This disproportionate ratio of lawn to garden is the main reason we rake, mow, and blow. To mimic the natural ecosystem an animal needs, a layer of leaves needs to be at least a couple of inches thick. While this would be too much of a good thing for turf grass – research has shown that lawns actually benefit from a thin layer of leaves, and the rest can be piled up around ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials without harm. Also, you can keep flowering plants and grasses untrimmed to provide standing cover and hollow stems for bee and butterfly eggs.

If you must keep your lawn clear of leaves, try raking or using a leaf vacuum to capture whole leaves, rather than shredding them with a mower and make a leaf pile in a corner of your yard. Even better, reduce your overall lawn footprint, replacing it with wildlife supporting plantings that can be future holding areas for fall leaves.

Many organic gardeners choose to shred their fall leaves for use in compost piles. While this is certainly better than bagging leaves and sending them to the landfill, shredded leaves will not provide the same cover as leaving them whole, and you may be destroying eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis along with the leaves. It is better for leaves in garden beds and lawn edges to be left whole. Where space allows, consider creating a leaf pile and allowing it to break down naturally, or add the leaves gradually to your compost pile over time. This will keep critters safe and allow you to benefit from the rich garden gift that falls from the trees above. 

Free mulch

Frugal gardeners know that leaves provide valuable organic matter and build up healthy soil. Fallen leaves have the same weed suppression and moisture retention properties of shredded wood mulch – and they’re free! 

You gave pollinators flowers and a place to nest. You tended your garden and avoided pesticides. Don’t carry all of that hard work out to the curb. When we treat leaves like trash, we’re tossing out the beautiful moths and butterflies that we’ll surely miss and work so very hard to attract.

While it is best to “leave the leaves” permanently – for all of the benefits mentioned above – if you do decide you need to clean up the garden and remove the leaves in spring, make sure you wait until late in the season so as not to destroy all the life you’ve worked to protect.

This article has been adapted from Leave the Leaves, Xerces Society e-newsletter, August 2018.

Buzzin Around is a service of the Hillsborough Garden Club in support of Hillsborough as the 35th Bee City USA. For more information, visit the resource page on the club website: http://www.hillsboroughgardenclubnc.com/ or email: contact@hillsboroughgardenclubnc.com