- June 23, 2015
There is no waste in the natural world. Every part of every living and nonliving thing recycles into molecules that serve a purpose in ecosystems. Leaves are no exception. We’ve learned to think of leaf litter as a problem to be hidden in our landscapes. In places where there is a distinctive Fall, with deciduous trees losing their leaves en masse, we scrape them off our lawns and out of our gardens, bag them, and send them to waste management. Leaf-litter plays many important ecological roles. Below we highlight some of the ways leaves are secretly at work in your gardens and parks.
Leaf litter can be a critical element of soil. Leaving leaves to decompose replenishes soil by releasing carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other inorganic compounds. The decomposition process can also foster interesting forms of life, like fungus, which often thrive in decaying leaf material.
Leaf litter also helps to retain moisture and regulate temperature. This is important in cold regions where organisms live under leaf litter during the winter, and where plants can receive some protection from extreme temperatures under a blanket of leaves.
Leaves provide homes to a variety of living things from the smallest bacteria to the largest macroinvertebrates. In the image above, a caterpillar has sealed itself inside a leaf. It will remain inside until the spring. Several invertebrates, like butterflies, will lay their eggs in leaf litter, using it as a nursery. Raking up these leaves and sending them away in the Fall has the unintended consequence of removing some of next year’s garden butterflies and moths.
As a home for many different invertebrates, leaf litter is an important foraging space for birds, small mammals and carnivorous insects. Pulling back the leaves on a forest floor will reveal a world of interactions, like image above of a caterpillar overrun with ants. These habitats are so critical some bird species’ declines have been linked with decreased invertebrates on the forest floor as in the case of the Wood Thrush, a migratory song bird that forages for insects and snails on the forest floor in the Northeast.
The removal of leaves from suburban and urban homes and community areas is a common practice. But, it doesn’t have to be. Choosing to leave your leaves where they fall is your right as a property owner. As long as leaves are not posing a threat by creating slippery conditions on sidewalks or roads, they can lie where they fall.
Tips: Some communities have rules regarding raking leaves when they fall. In these situations we recommend gently raking leaves into larger piles, securing with light fencing, and using them as:
1. Mulch around large trees or shrubs and garden beds.
2. Layers in your compost pile.
3. Leafmould for soil drainage and enrichment.
Rethinking leaves in our yards could mean instead of Fall “maintenance” they can be an investment in the long-term vibrancy of a yard ecosystem. You might be rewarded with improved soil composition for healthy plant communities as well as increased biodiversity of butterflies, moths, and other beneficial insects.
Add it to your Map
Tell us about how you manage your leaves.
We are gathering this data at the site level. Click on your site outline and then click on the green Info button.
Look for the characteristic titled Leaf Litter and choose the best description for how you manage the majority of your leaves at this site.