Leave the Leaves
It's hard to imagine, but fall is just around the corner. Before we know it, we will be treated with the spectacular show from our trees as their leaves change colors and fall from their branches. If you're anything like me, you have spent countless hours raking, and bagging, and hauling leaves to the community compost sites. I am here to tell you some GREAT news! You don't have to do this anymore! In fact, through this article, I am going to try to convince you not to.
If I am unable to convince you, please, check out https://xerces.org for more information and other valuable resources.
We have been conditioned to see leaves as litter, but they're not! They are essential to countless critters, including the pollinators that we spend countless hours of time and money creating beautiful flowerbeds and gardens for. Read on to learn more about how the leaves are invaluable to these critters, and how they can benefit you and both your flower and vegetable gardens.
We love them. They're big, clumsy, fuzzy friends. The true queens of the gardens... The Bumble bees! Think of the leaves as a thick blanket covering the queen bumble bees who are snuggled into the soil. Without this blanket of leaves, many of the bees are unable to survive the cold winter. This unfortunately results in less and less of these friends year after year. Including the critically endangered #RustyPatchedBumbleBee.
Fritillary caterpillars are small, only about an inch-and-a-half long. Nearly impossible to spot in the leaf litter that you are raking up or (hopefully not - more on this later) leaf blowing, you would never be able to avoid mistakenly packing them into the lawn bags and hauling off to the compost.
Like the bumble bees, we love the fuzzy wooly bear caterpillars. They are among the first friendly garden creatures that curious children meet and interact with. I remember fond memories of watching these cuties crawl on my hand and explore their gardens. Without the leaves, they too will not have the essential warm blanket shielding them from the cold wind and snow of winter.
There are actually quite a few butterflies and moths who disguise themselves as leaves. They have adapted to hide out in the leaves so they cannot be discovered by predators when they are defenseless in their transition stages. Like the Fritillary caterpillars, these cocoons are undetectable in the leaves, and you would never know how many beauties you are affecting.
The luna moth is an absolute wonder to behold. Unfortunately, there are thousands who are thrown out with the leaves. Hopefully, they were not blown around using a leaf blower. There is a very slim chance that the cocoon will survive the extremely high wind pressure as the leaves are being blown, and along with them, the luna moth.
Residing in the southeastern United States, the red-banded hairstreak is a very small, yet beautiful butterfly. It’s truly a sight to behold and if you’re fortunate enough to see one, please take time to notice how the males perch on shrubs and low trees to watch for females. These beauties lay their eggs on the underside of a few specific species of trees including the wax myrtle, dwarf sumac, staghorn sumac, and several oaks. If you have any of these trees in your yard, please take extra special care, because these tiny eggs are virtually undetectable.
There are so many benefits to mulching your gardens, from requiring less frequent waterings, composing to add nutrients back into your soil, to providing cover for beneficial insects and worms that help your gardens thrive. It is embarrassing to admit how much money I have spent over the years on mulch. Since switching to using leaves, my gardens (and my wallet) have benefitted. Additionally, the number of and variety of pollinators have dramatically increased year after year.
When reading this article, you may have wondered if I am requesting that you simply leave the leaves where they fall. While, in some cases this is a best practice, like creating a soft landing under your tree canopies, this is not always feasible. It isn’t practical, or safe, to leave walkways, stairs, and driveways covered in leaves. There are two simple changes that I recommend you make when maintaining your landscaping in the fall. First, please ditch your leaf blower and exchange it for a handheld rake instead. The likelihood of these beloved creatures surviving a rake is significantly higher than surviving a leaf blower. Second, instead of bagging up you leave and having them hauled away or bringing them to the county compost, use the leaves as mulch for your gardens. If you do not have gardens where this is realistic, designate a small space in your yard where you can dump the leaves and leave them there.
Since you have reached the end of this article, I am extremely hopeful that you have decided to leave the leaves in your yards! If you have, you can sign the pollinator pledge here: https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/pollinator-protection-pledge