Leaves: For Mulch and Habitat

Mulching with leaves, not fossil fuels

By Tom Shiple

September 2021

After moving to Lexington in 2008, I followed the lead of many neighbors in cleaning up fall leaves and putting down fresh mulch in the spring. The process goes something like this: In the fall, use gas-powered leaf blowers to collect the leaves. Use a gas-powered vacuum cleaner to load them into a truck. Use the gas-powered truck to take the leaves to a composting facility. In the spring, use a gas-powered truck to deliver bark mulch to my property to distribute throughout the planting areas.

At some point it occurred to me that there was a zero cost, more ecologically friendly solution. I know I didn’t invent this solution, and it was probably commonplace in years past, but I don’t see any neighbors following this solution. The idea is simple: use the fallen leaves to mulch the gardens, thus avoiding trucks to take away decaying organic material in the fall only to bring back a different sort of decaying organic material in the spring.

About two-thirds of the perimeter of my property contains a wide strip where I have a variety of plantings like mature trees, bushes, and flowering plants. I cover these areas with a heavy layer of leaf mulch, which impedes weed growth, retains moisture, and adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

In the fall, I first use a good old-fashioned rake to gather the leaves into a dozen or so piles across the lawn. It sounds like work, and it does take some effort, but I also get some good exercise.

The second step is to rake the piles onto a large tarp to then dump into the planting areas. But I learned the first year that leaves freshly distributed throughout the planting areas will blow away with the winter and spring winds.

So now I dump the fall leaves in a large pile in a corner of my property that is less exposed to the wind in the fall, to wait through winter. Then around early June, when the winds have died down, the leaves have begun breaking down, and weeds are sprouting, I distribute the leaf pile throughout the planting areas. This does the job for the rest of the growing season.

There are a few caveats worth mentioning. First, I wasn’t accumulating enough leaves from my own property, so now I get an additional supply from my neighbor. His landscapers are generous enough to blow some of the leaves from his backyard directly onto tarps in my yard that I set out. Second, on two occasions I have discovered bees nesting in the leaf pile when I distribute it in June. Now I wear protective clothing to minimize the chance of getting stung. Lastly, I must confess that I still maintain a few small planting areas in my front yard with store-bought bark mulch. It provides a tidier look. I put down a three-inch layer and find that it only needs to be renewed every several years.

Notes from Lexington Living Landscapes

For more ideas on how to put these principles to work in your yard:

Click here to hear Anna Fialkoff of the Wild Seed Project talk about “Gardening for Wildlife in the Autumn and Year-Round”.

Watch the short presentation Georgia Harris made to Mothers Out Front Lexington on this subject on September 9.

Read the Xerces Society’s advice on how and why to Leave the Leaves.

Leave the Leaves

By Pamela Lyons

September 2021

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

from To Autumn, John Keats

We’re a long way from the nature-rich world of John Keats’ “To Autumn.” Instead, fall has become the season of noise, habitat destruction, and environmental degradation. Leaf-blowing, cutting down of stems and seed heads, leaf and debris removal—much of this is entirely unnecessary and turns your yard into a wasteland that can’t support the pollinators and local wildlife.

Many beneficial insects, such as butterflies, fireflies, moths, and beetles, overwinter in leaf litter or brush piles. Many insects overwinter in dead stems. In turn, these small creatures are prey for birds, turtles, frogs, and small mammals. About 70% of native bees overwinter in the top layer of soil. Leaf blowing literally blows away this valuable habitat.

Leaf litter provides free organic material, enriching your soil and providing protection from the freeze-thaw cycle in the spring. Visually, seed heads and stems are a ghostly and sculptural presence in winter.

So what to do? Leaf litter tends to collect naturally under shrubs, in perennial beds, and around trees. Just leave them. If you must move the leaves, deposit them in these areas. As for debris, create a brush pile in an unobtrusive location. The beneficial insects and other small wildlife will overwinter in your brush pile. A lot of leaf litter and some debris will literally disappear over the winter, as it breaks down. What leaf litter that remains in spring will provide free mulch over the summer.

Leaving the leaves is a simple and effective way to bring back the pollinators and support other beneficial insects that in turn provide food for birds, chipmunks, turtles, frogs, and other animals.

March 10, 2021. Leaf litter from fall 2020 provides shelter and insulation to a perennial bed.

May 18, 2021. Same location two months later. The leaves are entirely disappearing under Rudbeckia lanciata.