Becoming a Leaf Litter Bug: the Ecological Benefits of the Not So Perfect Yard

by Joanne Mullowney

Every autumn we post our Annual Autumn Cleanup article asking readers to rethink the prevailing custom of treating leaves as waste by raking them to the curb for Township pickup. We suggest instead that you channel your inner Environmental Steward by leaf cycling. The benefits of leaf cycling, the practice of hoarding your autumn leaf drop for use in your landscape, are many. They include the retention of raw materials for the compost pile, provision of an insulating winter cover in the garden, soil building, moisture retention, and reduction in the amount of resources our Township puts out for fall cleanup, saving taxpayer dollars. And while you might think that this leaves the yard looking a little less than perfect, less labor may be required as we strive to become Leaf Litter Bugs.

The Benefit of Providing Habitat

The somewhat messy yard contributes yet another important benefit – habitat, not a traditional concern of the average gardener. Did you know that despite its not so perfect look, leaf litter provides an important foraging space for a wide variety of birds, small mammals and insects? Also providing benefit is the untrimmed garden where ladybugs and lacewings reside in native grasses and pollinating bees settle in hollow plant stems. Butterflies and moths winter in chrysalides on the ground and baby spiders hide out amid the decaying plant stems.[1] Birds feed from dried seed heads in winter.

Some wildlife use the leaf litter and other dead vegetation to insulate them from winter’s chill, while others, such as earthworms feed on the litter, breaking it into smaller pieces. Bacteria and fungi in turn convert theses smaller pieces into nutrients which then sustain neighboring plants. They in turn help support biodiversity by becoming food themselves. Toads, beetles, ladybugs and much more also live in your backyard’s leaf litter. Each is an integral part of the food web.

The Challenge

We have a tendency to want to put things in order at the end of the gardening season. Raking up and disposing of our leaves, chopping down dead flower stalks and grasses all contribute to a manicured appearance. So how do you balance a desire to have a not-so-messy yard (and not irritate the neighbors) with the needs of the interconnected web of creatures that provide biodiversity and heretofore underappreciated benefits to your garden?   First you have to realize that you don’t have to let your whole garden go wild; you can start out small. Just leave a section or two untrimmed or start in the backyard. One trick also is to settle the leaves under the branches of your shrubs. Give it a year and your leaf litter will have broken down while providing mulch and increasing the soil’s water retention abilities.

The Winter Garden

In addition, learn to appreciate your winter garden. I highly recommend The Garden in Winter by Suzy Bales to assist you in this task.[2] Light brown native grasses swaying in the wind look beautiful against the snow, as do the seed heads of Echinacea, Rudbeckia and Yarrows which all provide winter forage and are inviting to the birds.

So what to do with those leaves?

You might try a combination of methods. Rake out some of the leaves from the beds that are simply too much and might smother tender plants and cause them to rot over the winter. Add them to the compost pile or the leaf pile on the lawn while the rest remain in the beds. Then take your mulching mower and chop them up into small pieces. (Yes, using gas mowers is considered an unsustainable gardening practice, but consider the greater good.) Rake up most of the chopped leaves and place them back in the garden around shrubs and plants.   Not surprisingly, they are greatly reduced in volume and contribute to a more manicured look. The remainder can stay on your lawn and decompose there. Do this as needed until the end of the season and the leaves will break down over the winter providing your soil with valuable nutrients all the while enhancing habitat.

Then, don’t rush your spring cleanup. Many insects living in your backyard habitat do not emerge all that early. This past year I left the leaves in a large part of the garden undisturbed and they were quickly hidden by emerging vegetation. Some I pulled out and chopped for mulch and put back in the beds. This yielded a combination of leaf litter and mulch. It was fascinating to watch the birds forage in the leaf litter around the shrubs and perennials.

Set yourself a goal of gardening more sustainably by trying to reach a balance between aesthetics and respecting the natural processes occurring in the landscape. After all, Mother Nature doesn’t have anyone carting out leaves to the curb. Our world desperately needs more environmental stewards, eco-gardeners working in harmony with nature and conserving natural resources. We ask you to become a litter bug; a Leaf Litter Bug, that is.

[1] McManus, Melanie Radzicki, Before You Clean Up Plant Debris, Consider the Benefits of a Messy Yard. , 10-01-2000.

[2] Bales, Suzy, The Garden in Winter: Plant for Beauty and Interest in the Quiet Season. New York: Rodale, 2007

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