Leave the Leaves

This fall, the Webster Groves Green Space Advisory Commission is making a case for Leaving the Leaves in your garden. Besides providing the right plants and protecting your garden from pesticides, one of the next most valuable things you can do to support pollinators and other invertebrates is to provide them with the winter cover they need in the form of fall leaves and standing dead plant material.

The vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult. Bumble bees, spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more also rely on leaf litter for protection. These animals, in turn, are food for chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians. Leaves are integral to sustaining the natural web of life. The practice of leaving leaves may not align with every homeowner’s desire for a neat and tidy yard. It may be habitual, a matter of social conditioning, or a holdover of outdated gardening practices from year’s past, but every fall many people rake, mow, blow, or hire someone to take away a bit of nature that is essential to the survival of moths, butterflies, snails, spiders, and dozens of arthropods.

Where to Leave the Leaves

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 to handle, leaves can be collected in planting beds around ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials, or turned into a pile in a corner of your yard. When moving leaves, opt for raking or using a leaf vacuum to capture whole leaves, rather than shredding them with a mower.

To Shred or Not to Shred

While shredding leaves is certainly a more environmentally friendly practice than bagging leaves and sending them to the landfill—shredded leaves do not provide the same cover as leaving them whole, and eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalis may be destroyed when shredding.

Free Mulch!

Whether you shred your leaves or keep them whole, leaves do provide many benefits to your landscape. They 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!

Leaving the leaves permanently is a great idea for all of the benefits mentioned above, but, if you do decide you need to cleanup 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.

If You Leave the Leaves . . . 

Tell your neighbors what you’re doing so they know you’re not just being lazy, share what you know about winter cover for wildlife, and remember your leaves allow you to have a yard for you, your family, and all of the animals with which we share this planet.

If you’d like to demonstrate your commitment to the cause in an additional way, stay tuned to find out how you can get a sign for your yard to spread the word about Leave the Leaves!