Leave the Leaves for the Pollinators

November 11, 2020

Blanket of oak leaves

Blanket of oak leaves

Leaves were cool when I was a kid. In early autumn we would have a huge — huge as in humongous huge— pile of leaves to jump into, get completely buried in. Afterward, after all the romping, the annual leaf-ritual would close with a bonfire — the smell of leafy smoke wafting through the crisp night air. It was a fall rite of passage.

But then times changed. People started to complain about leaves and leaves weren’t cool anymore. They were in the way, a problem to be solved. People had to get the leaves off their property along with the rest of the trash. Leaves were work and raking was punishment.

Times keep changing, and now leaves are cool again! Recently there’s been a shift in our appreciation of fall’s leafy bounty. Leaves have become a resource — trash no more. What’s so special about leaves? In short, leaves are a free supply of organic material for our environment. Leaves are a superior, healthier mulch than what most people have been buying at garden centers. Leaving the leaves for mulch preserves soil moisture, suppresses weeds, helps return nutrients to the soil, and reduces waste in landfills.

Eastern black swallowtail on bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Cheryl Alloway

Eastern black swallowtail on bottlebrush buckeye, photo by Cheryl Alloway

Many forms of wildlife including pollinators rely on leaves for survival. Leaves provide the home for overwintering pollinators. The great spangled fritillary caterpillar, for example, overwinters in leaf litter, emerging in the spring to fatten up on violets before pupating. The swallowtail butterfly disguises its chrysalis as dried leaves tucked in with the real leaves. In fact, most butterflies and moths do not migrate in the fall but overwinter as an egg, a caterpillar, pupae or an adult.

When things warm up in the spring, the eggs hatch, the caterpillars start eating and the adults emerge from their winter cocoon or chrysalis. Hibernating queen bumblebees burrow into the soil. A layer of leaves on top provides them with extra winter protection. Without this leafy habitat, their life cycles will be interrupted, and these pollinators will perish. Remove your leaves and you remove the pollinators.

This new appreciation for leaves means that we have to figure out how to become leaf-friendly again. Leaves are often removed primarily to neaten up our outdoor spaces.  But we can have both a well-kept landscape and a leafy landscape.



Here are some landscaping strategies toward achieving a tidy and leaf-friendly yard:

• Remove leaves where they’re underfoot or smothering plants.
• In walkways, clear leaves using a broom or rake. It will also be safer — wet leaves are slippery.
• In lawns, mow right over leaves to create a mulch that will work into the soil. Mowing reduces leafy clumps especially in areas where the lawn is being smothered. Excess leaf mulch can be redistributed to garden areas.
• In driveways leaves can be mowed or raked or swept. Leaves on driveways will eventually crush down to compost or dirt.
• In the garden remove any leaves smothering plants. But instead of raking down to the soil, remove just enough leaves to uncover plants. Keep soil covered with leaves to protect plant roots from excessive cold and heat.
• Along edges and surrounding gardens remove leaves with a rake or by mowing.

Great spangled fritillary female on goldenrod, photo by Angela Sisson

Great spangled fritillary female on goldenrod, photo by Angela Sisson

And avoid leaf blowers. Leaf blowers are noisy and polluting with a carbon footprint 30 times that of a car. Leaf blowers disturb birds, disrupt pollinators, and harm microorganisms and other wildlife. If you prefer to use a leaf blower on a driveway, for example, consider going electric. Though particulate pollution remains a problem, electric leaf-blowers are much less noisy and don’t have the carbon footprint that gas models do.

Don’t remove leaves from under tree canopies, around shrubbery, within gardens, meadows, fields, or woodlands. Leave the leaves whole wherever possible. Leaves provide a nutrient-rich blanket of protection for overwintering plants and animals including pollinators. Try not to disturb leaves until the spring, preferably after several days above 50 degrees.

Next spring when you start to clean up or rather wake up the garden, remember to be gentle with the leaves and keep an eye out for pollinator caterpillars and cocoons.

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