I Am The Lorax, I Speak for the Leaves

Many species of wildlife live in the leaf litter

Last week I wrote about playing in the leaves with kids and what a wonderful opportunity this was for children to discover the plethora of wildlife who make their home in the leaf litter.

And I received a twitter message from my friend, Kylee Baumle (@OurLittleAcre) who said:

Hi Carole! I read your article & agree with most of it except for the raking. Depends on where leaves fall & how many you have!

And we proceeded to have a friendly back and forth discussion about the value of leaf litter for wildlife and Kylee’s concerns about diseases and the fact that she has just too many leaves to deal with in her garden. Kylee’s view of The Problem With Leaves expresses this other side of this conversation. We’re going to continue this friendly discussion here.

Different Kinds of Gardeners

We’ve all met different kinds of gardeners. There are ornamental gardeners who aspire to have a garden worthy of showcasing in the pages of Fine Gardening or Horticulture. There are vegetable gardeners who proudly feed their families (and neighborhood) with the bounty of their land. And there are passionate wildlife gardeners who find great joy from a new bird or butterfly who has chosen to visit their wildlife garden. And there are gardeners who enjoy all of the above.

I am a wildlife gardener. Personally, the entire reason that I garden is to create habitats for wildlife, and every choice that I make in my garden is made with the needs of wildlife as a top priority.

What is beautiful to me is not the individual “specimens” of plants scattered through a garden, but the birds, butterflies, bees, insects, frogs and toads, and other wildlife who make their home in gardens that I have created. These gardens are beautiful because they are full of life, and the plants are only a vehicle to that end.

And happily, my garden will never appear in the pages of Fine Gardening.

Kylee, on the other hand, is an ornamental gardener, albeit with an admitted joy in discovering new butterflies, moths, and other insects in her garden, which she happily shows off on twitter. But the fact remains that we garden for different reasons.

She likes ornamental plants and the latest cultivars. I like wildlife and I choose only plants that have the most value to them. Don’t get me wrong, Kylee loves wildlife, too. But she does feel buried under the many, many leaves that fall on her property, and feels like there can be too much of a good thing.  We’re different. And that’s ok. We can discuss our views in a friendly way, even though we know we disagree. I like that in a person.

There are several issues which seem to stir up a lot of controversy and angry words between wildlife gardeners and ornamental gardeners. One is the subject of native plants. The other is the subject of fallen leaves and general garden neatness. This is not the place for angry words. Just sayin’ :)

Leaving the Leaves in Place is Good For Wildlife

An amazing array of wildlife makes their home in the leaf litter, including spiders, many butterflies and moths in various life stages, other insects, salamanders, frogs and toads, and other wildlife. One of the biggest joys of my life is watching the many birds who spend all winter and spring picking through my leaves in search of something good to eat.

Northern Red Salamander

Salamanders live in the leaf litter © 2010 Carole A. Brown

All of the fallen leaves on my property  stay in my garden. And I live in a neighborhood where the homes are more than 100 years old and so are the many trees. There’s a lot of leaves. I like that.

I do rake the pathways and pile them into my garden beds. But not one leaf that falls on my property is bagged up and trucked away. In fact, I drive around the neighborhood in the fall and pick up those paper bags of other people’s leaves.

I go in to the winter with about two feet of leaves piled high in each garden area. After the snow melts I walk around the garden with a hand rake and just loosen up the  packed leaves. All of my plants happily poke their heads right through them in the spring. And by the time next autumn rolls around, there are none left.

Bagged Leaves

Now, just because I collect every leaf in the neighborhood does not mean that I’m saying this is an all or nothing issue for you.

Gardening for wildlife and biodiversity, as with so many other choices, includes options along a continuum that are really bad for wildlife, to those that are better, to those that are the best possible choices for wildlife conservation and biodiversity. Every gardener will have to come to terms with where their choices fall along this continuum, but each of us has a duty to become  responsible stewards of our own little piece of Mother Earth.

So what I’m saying is that some leaves in your wildlife garden is good. Lots of leaves is better for the wildlife who make their home there. I vote for the wildlife. You will cast your vote as you can.

Do Leaves Make the Garden Look Messy?

Well, it depends on how you define messy or beauty. I find beauty in the critters who live in my leaves.

My friend Genevieve Schmidt (@NCoastGardening) is not so sure about that. She has joined this conversation with the Evolution of a Gardener: Finding the Middle Ground Between Neat and Natural.

It seems another article I wrote about the life in the leaf litter got Genevieve to thinking about how to provide more for wildlife and maintain her sense of aesthetic beauty.

My point is each of us gardens for different reasons. The conditions in my garden are very different even than my neighbor’s across the street, let alone my friends in Florida or Arizona. There is no one best way to do things. Each of us needs to make the best choices that we are able to.

Also see:

Naomi Sachs To Rake or Not to Rake

Genevieve Schmidt Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground

Debbie Roberts Weighing in on the Great Leaf Debate

And now it’s your turn. What do you do with the fallen leaves in your garden? What critters live in YOUR leaves?

Check out my new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week, teaching you to garden sustainably, conserve natural resources, and create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your garden.

© 2010 – 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of EcosystemGardening.com If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    I hear what Kylee is saying. I’m in process of moving about 4 years worth of pine straw and leaf litter mostly water oak from a bed of azaleas. Mind you, I’m still leaving a dense layer as mulch. But like her problem, this layer had gotten so dense that my Indica azaleas still looked wilted after a recent rain. What I’m doing is transferring this leaf litter to new areas that I want to establish in shrub beds. Free, readily available and native to my landscape it’s now smothering some patchy and struggling zoysia that was suffering in the shade. Wax myrtle and virginia sweetspire appear the front runnes for this new bed.

    Ideally cities and towns would green cycle lawn clippings and fall leaves from residents for mulch for municipal projects or to sell to those who don’t have an abundance so they could be used in private landscapes.

    • Carole Brown says

      Maggie: Oooh, new beds! That always makes me so happy. A blank slate on which to create. Have fun!

  2. says

    I’m loving this conversation, Carole! It goes to show that not only are gardeners different, gardens and the natural habitat where they exist is different as well. As I said, my garden is by no means leaf or any other litter-free, but there are times when it just is excessive. Back when I was a beginning gardener, I let things just go and when spring rolled around – yikes! I love using leaves as mulch in the fall, when they’re plentiful, but I’d rather use them as chopped leaves. No leaves ever leave our property. They’re put to good use! We just rearrange them a bit. LOL!

    I think we can certainly agree on the positive aspects of leaves in various forms and that we both love nature and wildlife. And this is why we can have a friendly conversation like this about it!

    Here’s one for you… I was sick at my stomach yesterday when I was digging holes to plant some spring bulbs. Even with amendments, there are areas in our gardens that are still pretty heavily clay and with the drought, they’ve become even harder than normal, so I have to really go after it when digging, especially for planting daffodils, which require a depth of 8 inches. I dug in, turned the soil over, only to find two toads in the hole I’d just dug. One was fine, but the other was now without a leg and part of his hind parts. :-((( I just wanted to cry. He was bleeding and clearly wasn’t going to survive, although he was still alive. I took him over to my dad for him to do what needed to be done, because I couldn’t do it myself. Then I worried that I was going to go back to what I was doing and find that leg and ‘stuff.’ I didn’t, but I won’t ever forget what happened. *sniff* We have so very many toads here, of all sizes. Even now, there are tiny baby ones hopping around everywhere.
    Kylee from Our Little Acre recently posted..Flexrake® 8 Ratchet Bypass Pruners – A Review

    • Carole Brown says

      Oh Kylee, I’m so sorry about your toad! That must have been heart-breaking :( Even though the ground was like cement, I bet it was wetter in the hole and they were in search of some much-needed moisture. As for conversation, I’m always looking to see what works for others and I always enjoy our chats. Thank you!

  3. says

    I actually import leaves from my friend who feels she has too many. I have mostly pine trees so my leaves are limited. I’m letting more areas grow, but the shortage of leaves is still apparent as growth can sometimes be slow, so my friend brings me bags full to our monthly native plant society meeting and I also pick some up from the local city’s recycling area where they munch them up and dump them for use by residents. I love the critters…you’ll find that hairstreak butterflies use leaf litter from sumac as their larval food. A different hairstreak uses the leaf litter of bayberry. I find many a good wolf spider and the anoles play endlessly running up the tree and then back down to hide in the leaves. There are milipedes and beetles and all sorts of excellent creatures breaking down the leaves into gold! Natural, wonderful, chemical-free fertilizer and at zero cost!
    Loret recently posted..Blog Action Day – WATER!

      • says

        The Lorax is definitely down and dirty, lovin’ the leaves, and thanks for bringing him to mind, Carole.
        I always think of him when we drive by the giant paper mills smack in the middle of the beautiful marshes in Georgia along 95. I relish every leaf that falls, and if there are heaps that are too untidy or deep, I transfer them to other spots. Keep a raked pathway if you are craving tidiness. Love it and leaf it, he he.

  4. says

    As a master gardener, I work really hard to educate consumers against raking and bagging leaves. Our state even has a “Don’t Bag It!” education campaign. It primarily applies to grass clippings, but leaves are included. If the leaves have to move, we encourage composting them. I have been known to swipe bags of leaves from the curb on trash days in the fall. My 14 acres are NOT manicured, and I have just tossed my neighbor’s cows and horses off so I can manage the land for wildlife. No leaf is currently disturbed here. I can see how they would smother ground cover in town, though, and need to be moved to a compost pile to be “predigested” for the flowers and shrubs to use them. And an ornamental garden, or vegetable garden, is different from a straight wildlife garden in that regard.
    Stephanie Suesan Smith recently posted..Soil Types

  5. says

    Great post! I’m always torn about raking. We have two white oaks in the front of our property, and I sort of go the middle way, cleaning up enough to not have the leaves be a total nuisance. Fortunately, our neighbors have a “wild” area in their back yard and they don’t mind us dumping our raked leaves there, so at least things don’t have to travel very far! I used to love jumping in the leaves after I’d raked them with my parents. Alison Vallin’s recent blog post gave me a very fond reminder: http://www.atastefulgarden.com/2010/10/living-leaf-jumping.html.
    Naomi Sachs recently posted..Planting the Healing Garden- Plant Bulbs Now for Spring Joy

  6. says

    I love seeing the bright red, yellow or orange carpets beneath the trees and gasp when folks come out with rakes to erase the beauty and habitat for little critters of all kinds. Leaf blowers are the worst! I let the leaves lie where they lay and love to walk around hearing their crunchy sounds. I hope I am not stepping on any small life! I understand that some leaves mat and may cause problems for some, but the wind might whip them up a bit. Indeed I do not think natures natural blankets untidy. ;>)
    Carolflowerhillfarm recently posted..Jazzy Blooming Friday Astonishing Light Against the Sky

  7. Mike Korner says

    I get the best garden soil when I put leaves and grass down over the winter. It all breaks down and I end up with better soil year after year. Vegetables, flowers, critters, insects and people all seem to get along happily.

  8. says

    Carole, thanks for the continuation of this excellent discussion. It’s funny, but for my own home garden, I’m actually veering on your side of the leaf continuum!! I rake up leaves for clients, then bring them home and layer them in my own garden beds to keep weeds down and make my soil nice for spring!

    Most of the gardens I take leaves from have landscape fabric, so leaving the leaves isn’t really a great option in those spaces. I need to convince my clients to ditch the fabric first.

    I appreciate your’s and Kylee’s thoughtful discussion and look forward to contributing to it more myself!
    Genevieve recently posted..The Evolution of a Gardener- Finding the Middle Ground Between Neat and Natural

  9. says

    I actually LIKE having leaf litter on the gardens, as it mimics what is in the woods near us and the soil there is fabulous, in spite of our native awful clay. But as I said, too much of a good thing can be somewhat of a bad thing. Rain is great – flooding isn’t. It can be the same with leaves, believe me!

    We do add leaves and compost to the bare areas of the garden, where we grow our veggies and many leaves remain right where they fall. I have absolutely no problem with the shredded leaves – thick cover or thin, but wet, matted, whole leaves in a thick layer can create a problem in some places.
    Kylee from Our Little Acre recently posted..Vented vs Ventless – What Do YOU Use

    • Jean says

      I got up at dawn and looked out a window.Lots of yellow leaves had fallen and I think the sun was shining at a perfect angle.I thought it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen…I live on 5 acres of woods and was thinking of chopping up the leaves bec the mosquitoes were so bad last summer,I worry about the dogs or me getting sick..

  10. says


    We run the lawnmower over the leaves on the lawn to shred them, then use them as mulch in the garden beds. It looks beautiful! (So much nicer than bark mulch, IMO.) It decays gradually to feed the bed, keeps weeds under control, and the critters love it. In the springtime, the foxes play in it.

    It’s the perfect solution for us as we have 4 acres and LOTS of leaves. A real win-win. :)


  11. says

    I’ll be the jerk, partly because I’m good at it and partly because I like it–and partly because I think THERE IS ONE WAY ONLY to go.

    Sure, gardening is all about aesthetics. But I gotta tell you, judging by the very very few people who even put out some junipers or box elders or barberry or orange mums, the aesthetics are barf. Then these people get out their rakes and take up every last leaf, trim down stuff to withing a millimeter of the soil, tidy up so the landscape is some odd minimalist da-da thing. I see death everywhere. Freezing, exposed, frost-heaving death. A moral desert.

    There is only one way to treat the garden in fall–you’re tired, you know you are, go inside and take a nap. Watch football and caramel some apples. Let the earth have the earth. Let it be. For once in your meddling, polluting, I-am-the-best-species-on-the-planet-ever existence please resist the urge to touch anything. You made the garden because you love the garden and you love to garden–so let the garden be a garden. Let it rest as you rest every night so you can awaken refreshed and with new purpose. Let it be. Amen.

  12. says

    Wait, one more point. If you cut down the garden and clean it up, you can’t see it. You can’t design. All your wistful glances out the window in winter as you plan are hard imaginings that wouldn’t have to be so hard if you left all the wonderful stuff up. I find it 20x harder to design the garden in winter, to plan, if it’s all flat. That and the fact that to leave it up assures me of some snow cover insulating the cold temps that come the day after that snowfall. I push zones. My zone 6 plants want snow. Amen II.

  13. says

    We grind up the leaves on the front yard with a machine and put them right back in december. Gives the woodland native plant garden an ornamental look in our Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood. The bloodroot, trilliums, claytonia and Dutchmans breeches have no trouble poking through our leaf mulch come spring and every year the mulch builds up more and more, replicating a natural protected ravine, which is somewhat like what a rowhouse block creates with the buildings.
    In the back, we generally leave the leaves as they are for the most part, mainly out of the lack of time to deal with it. No leaves are carted out of the property!

  14. cheryl kinney says

    Carol have you ever had any problem with other people’s leaves that you have collected? I can get truckload of leaves in the Fall from the dump but I worry about diseases and pesticides.


  1. […] Leave fallen leaves lie. Many butterfly larva overwinter in these leaves, along with spiders, and beneficial insects. Leaves also provide cover and shelter for frogs, toads, salamanders, and other wildlife. If you cannot abide the thought of leaves in your flower beds, spread them under your shrubs, or pile them in the back corner. […]

  2. […] area the next morning (of course, don’t leave that light on all night and waste energy). A layer of dead leaves or mulch gives spiders a place to over-winter and lets hunting spiders do their thing. Mostly just be patient, and consider it a happy day when […]

  3. […] Twice over the years I’ve spotted Hummingbird Clearwings laying their eggs.  Each time they laid a single emerald-green egg on top of an Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) leaf.  This natural history moment was quite a thrill for this naturalist.  I’ve also encountered half a dozen full-sized Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing caterpillars on a “walkabout,” looking for a safe place to pupate.  The first one was a complete mystery; who would it become?  The horn at the caterpillar’s tail end narrowed it down to one of the sphinx moth caterpillars.  I drew it and sent my sketch around to other naturalists.  No one had a clue (this was prior to the internet and terrific websites like BugGuide).  So, I set up an empty terrarium, gently placed it inside, and prepared to wait and watch.  It was late August.  It rolled around and around until it became a pupa hidden within bits and pieces of debris.  No one emerged that fall, but the following June a lovely Snowberry Clearwing emerged.  In the wild the pupa survives on the forest floor under fallen leaves . . . a wonderful excuse NOT to rake leaves! […]

  4. […] If you want to attract wildlife to your garden and provide the habitats they need to survive the winter, you want to take a more relaxed approach to fall garden chores. And since the sole reason I garden is to invite wildlife to share my space with me, I am the Lorax, I Speak for the Leaves!  […]

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