I recently came across a blog about leaving fall leaves in our landscapes. I’ve been using leaves as mulch in my beds for quite some time, but I never realized how beneficial leaving the leaves, as nature intended, really is for the plants and planet.
Justin Wheeler with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (www.xerces.org) sheds light on how letting leaves remain in your landscape contributes to the protection of plants, provides cover for pollinators and beneficial insects, and helps recycle important nutrients.
In the spring, we plan and plant gardens to attract and support pollinators. Flowers not only beautify our yards, they also provide pollen and nectar needed by a number of beneficial insects. However, in order to thrive in our suburban gardens, those beneficial insects also need a habitat that will provide shelter and a proper environment for nesting and overwintering.
But come fall, we are compelled to clear the dead plant material out of gardens and flower beds, then rake and bag the leaves for a trip to the nearest landfill. As I discovered, those bags of leaves may contain the next generation of eggs, caterpillars and chrysalides of the insects we were so excited to see visiting our gardens during the summer. This habit of fall clean-up deprives the pollinators and beneficial insects of the natural habitat they need to survive in the winter.
Insects are the food source for chipmunks, turtles, birds and amphibians. The brown thrasher, Georgia’s state bird, can be found tossing leaves and other ground litter aside in search of small insects, worms, spiders and other tasty invertebrates. So, while we may not find fall leaves in our landscape aesthetically pleasing, they are an important part of sustaining the ecosystem. For this reason, leaving leaves whole in landscape beds and lawn edges is preferred versus shredding.
Most people are aware of the monarch butterfly migration; however, we shouldn’t assume that all butterflies, moths or spiders migrate to a warmer climate. The vast majority of insects spend the winter in our yards. According to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, “Many caterpillars present in late September or October overwinter in the larval stage. Depending upon the species, the larvae may take shelter under leaves, in hollow stems or under rocks and loose bark.”
Caterpillars will snug into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators. Some butterflies lay their eggs on fallen oak leaves; others disguise their cocoons and chrysalides as dried leaves, blending in with real leaves. And bumblebees make shallow burrows in the leaf-covered ground, where they hibernate during the winter. These are just a few examples of the many insects that call leaves home.
A 2- to 3-inch layer of whole leaves in beds becomes an attractive natural mulch and weed control. Not to mention, using fallen leaves saves you money. When partially decomposed, they turn into organic matter, releasing essential plant nutrients into the soil. Turfgrass also can benefit from a thin, top layer of leaves; however, they should be coarsely chopped with a lawnmower. Be careful that the leaves haven’t been chopped so fine that they create a thick or matted layer that can kill the grass. Or move the leaves to a natural area or landscape bed.
Many of us live in neighborhoods with homeowner associations, discerning neighbors or we simply like a nice lawn where we can enjoy family activities. If this is the case, try to find a happy medium by utilizing one or more of the out-of-way areas in your yard to create a home for insects that overwinter, or are a food source for local wildlife. For additional information on leaving the leaves, visit nwf.org.
The Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County fall educational programs have begun. Join one or all of the upcoming classes. Visit www.cobbmastergardeners.com to enroll.
Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County, Inc. (MGVOCC) is a 501(c)(3) organization, which promotes and supports horticultural education programs and projects in Cobb County, Georgia. Members have been certified by the University of Georgia (UGA) Master Gardener program. For gardening questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk, UGA Cooperative Extension/Cobb County at 770-528-4070.
– Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County is a part of the University of Georgia Extension.
Fall Gardening Programs
- Simple Landscaping Steps for Planning and Planting Your Garden is coming to the University of Georgia Cobb County Extension Office, noon-1 p.m. Oct. 8. Master Gardener Shirley Priest will explain steps used to create the city of Smyrna’s Sensory Garden and how to apply these same steps in your landscape.
- Garden Bargains will be at Mountain View Regional Library, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 12. Master Gardener Joy Chanin will share her ideas for garden bargains, as well as how to up-cycle and reuse common items and multiply your plants without seeds or spending money.
- Native Plants in the Urban and Suburban Landscape is online, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 19. Katie Ross, owner of Night Song Native Nursery, will explain why native plants in the landscape increase biodiversity and, ultimately, the health of our gardens and the greater environment.
- Perennials, Divide and Conquer will be held at North Cobb Regional Library, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 26. This hands-on class will teach the proper techniques for dividing perennials for transplanting or sharing.