Autumn is in full swing in Virginia, and during late October many of us have had the chance to view the brilliant changes in foliage all across the Commonwealth. A kaleidoscope of oranges, yellows, and reds among the natural landscape sets a perfect backdrop for favorite fall activities, but it also signals the approach of a less-beloved fall chore for some homeowners – raking, bagging, and disposing of fallen leaves that find their way into lawns and gardens. This year, the Wildlife Center is encouraging homeowners to try a different approach: leave those leaves be!
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on solid waste management, more than 30 million tons of yard trimmings (including leaves) were collected in the United States; more than 10 million tons of those yard trimmings were deposited in landfills. Reducing the amount of solid waste disposed into landfills has obvious benefits to our society as a whole, but when it comes to fallen leaves, leaving them be benefits wildlife, too.
Many native wildlife species – including amphibians, birds, small mammals, and countless invertebrates (important pollinators during the spring months) – rely on leaf litter as essential sources of food, nesting material, and protective habitats. Plant life also benefits from naturally decomposing leaves.
During a 2011 interview with NPR, the National Audubon Society’s Melissa Hopkins estimated that leaf litter on the forest floor may ultimately provide 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients that trees receive. In residential settings, decomposing leaves form a natural mulch that helps retain moisture in the soil and suppresses unwanted weeds from growing, as well.
Homeowners and landscapers who may not be ready for an entirely hands-off approach this fall may consider the following wildlife- and environmentally-friendly tips:
- Chop or mulch leaves where they lay to create a finer layer of leaf litter
- Instead of bagging leaves, simply rake them onto existing garden or mulch beds
- Combine and mix leaves with other yard trimmings to create compost piles (excellent fertilizer for springtime gardening!)
- Use leaves, sticks, and stems to create brush piles, a key component of wildlife-friendly backyard habitats