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  • Marie McKinsey

Leave Those Leaves!

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Boston ivy in red, yellow, green, and purple fall color

The biggest lesson we have to learn from climate change is that we can't keep doing things the way we always have been. Before doing things out of habit, we have to ask ourselves if what we're doing makes sense in terms of the environment.

A good example is the annual autumn ritual of raking up leaves and having them hauled away. Outside of a bit of nostalgia, if you grew up in a family that observed this ritual every year, or satisfaction with the look of a "tidy" yard, there's really nothing to be gained by doing this.

In fact, the opposite is true. Leaving the leaves has many benefits.

  • Leaves return vital nutrients to the soil as they decay.

  • Leaves retain rainwater and keep it from running off, especially in the early part of the rainy season. By the end of a long, hot, dry summer, the soil has formed a crust which repels water. Instead of soaking into the ground, the rainwater runs off. But when rain falls on layers of leaves, it doesn’t run off. It coats the leaf surfaces, and over time, that water gradually seeps into the soil at a rate it can absorb. As drought becomes more common, strategies like this, to conserve precious rainwater, will become more important.

  • Leaves make a good mulch. They're a blanket for the soil. They protect the soil from the constant pelting of raindrops, which compacts the soil further and makes it even less likely to absorb water.

  • Leaves provide shelter, food and nesting spaces for wildlife, including small mammals, and birds. They provide an overwintering home for the larvae of beneficial insects and pollinators.

There are some caveats, however. Leaves will smother your lawn, so rake them off the grass and into the beds. If you have a lot of big leaves, run over them with the lawnmower to shred them before raking so they break down faster.

In late winter, to early spring, I brush the leaves off of the ground covers in my beds, so they can get sunlight. By then, the leaf volume is reduced and the layers fit nicely under trees and shrubs.


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