Life in the Leaf Litter: Don’t Throw a Good Thing Away

Autumn Leaves

Leaf Litter is an essential habitat element for wildlife

This is the time of year when those giant paper bags full of fallen leaves start appearing on sidewalks around the country. This is also the time of year I drive around my neighborhood picking up those bags of leaves in my truck and spreading them throughout my garden beds.

The practice of removing our yard waste to landfills is enormously unsustainable:

  • We spend endless hours raking, blowing, and bagging the leaves that fall every year.
  • The use of leaf blowers is a source of noise pollution and air pollution, and uses large amounts of non-renewable fossil fuel.
  • These huge piles are hauled away by truck, using more gasoline and causing more air pollution.
  • Often this organic yard material is dumped into landfills, which destroys wildlife habitat.
  • Then we have mulch trucked in to replace the benefits of the leaves we just hauled away.
  • And we replace the nutrients that were freely available from the decomposition of those leaves with synthetic fertilizers, which are another petroleum product.

This cycle cannot be sustained without causing increasing damage to our environment. It is much more sustainable to manage this yard waste on our own properties.

Fortunately, this is very easy to do and also returns nutrients to the soil, provides habitat for many organisms, and ensures healthy plants.

I pile up these leaves in every one of my flower beds, sometimes it is more than two feet deep. In the spring I take a hand rake and loosen the leaves around my emerging plants, which hide the leaves during the growing season. By the time the next leaves fall, the old leaves have completely decomposed and the soil is ready for a new blanket.

Why do I do this?

  • There is a cycle of life contained in the leaf litter and we destroy many forms of wildlife every time we remove these leaves.
  • Many butterflies find shelter in the leaf litter, either in egg, pupal, or adult form, to safely wait out the winter and emerge in the spring.
  • Leaf litter provides food and shelter to an amazing variety of invertebrates who break down the leaves, which feeds the soil and other wildlife.
  • Healthy plants are dependent on healthy soil.
  • The deeper the leaf litter, the more spiders are supported. Spiders are an essential element in keeping pest insects in balance.
  • Leaf litter is also home to ladybugs, salamanders, toads, and other predators of pest insects. It is no wonder that pests like aphids thrive when we continue to destroy the habitat of the predators that would keep them under control.
  • Every spring these leaves are covered with birds who pick through the leaves in search of a tasty meal.
  • Trucked in mulch is not necessary when the leaves are left to cover the soil because the leaf litter acts as a natural blanket of mulch, controlling soil moisture and temperature.

I know there are many gardeners who cannot bear the thought of even one leaf creating a “mess” in their pristine garden beds. But it’s easy to tuck the leaves under your shrubs or in a back corner where they can work their magic and leave your sense of tidyness intact.

Or the leaves can be composted and then spread over your soil so at least the natural nutrients can be returned to the soil.

The benefits to your local wildlife far outweigh any need for neatness.

What do you do with the leaves in your garden? What wildlife have you noticed in your leaf litter?

© 2009 – 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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  1. says

    As I read this, there was a leaf blower going in the neighbor’s yard. Jeesh. It’s funny that you mentioned that you collect other people’s leaves. On my walks with the dogs lately, I have thought about collecting leaves, too. My husband read that leaf mold was one of the best mulches of all time – and it’s free! Between the leaves and the multitude of deposits from our backyard chickens, I should be all set!
    .-= Michelle (What’s Cooking)´s last post ..A Few Pollan-isms and Food Rules =-.

  2. says

    Thanks for the reminder and ideas Carole. My guilty secret is that I’ve sent leaves to the landfill, all the while agonizing and hating to do it. I’m hoping to keep the leaves home this year – leaves that have fallen so far have been mulched into the grass by double-cutting with the mower (two passes over the lawn). My challenge has been that Kansas is windy in winter and leaves travel and don’t stay in the flower beds. And with 5 large trees in a fairly small yard the volume is too large to manage in compost piles.
    .-= Alison Kerr´s last post ..Make Like a Kansas Possum and Prepare for a Prairie Winter =-.

    • says

      Alison, I’m from Kansas too – and I think leaves are the best mulch possible, even here. We live out in the country, so my beds are very exposed to the wind as well, but I’ve found that if I chop the leaves up, they don’t blow much. On a really exposed bed, sometimes I’ll sprinkle a little hardwood mulch on top of the leaves to give them a bit of weight, but usually even that isn’t necessary.

      To chop the leaves, my husband created a “leaf alley” – a relatively narrow, long space at one end of our vegetable garden, next to the compost pile. It’s fenced in on 3 sides (one long one with chain link from the lagoon fence and the other long side plus one short side with a 24-30″ snow fence sort of fencing). He takes the lawnmower in there and runs it back and forth over each bag of leaves we empty – and then we leave it there until we need to use it in the garden beds.

      I will also say that the more perennial growth we’ve had, the less likely the leaves are to blow, too.

      We mulch mow the lawn and collect bags of leaves from streetside in town, bringing them home to compost. This system has been working VERY well for us!
      Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener recently posted..Spanish Needles

  3. says

    I think if more people realized that it’s more sustainable to manage their yard waste on their own properties, they would gladly skip the bagging portion of their fall. Thanks for the informative article and another beautiful photo!
    .-= Wendy´s last post ..WDAY Green Tip #17 – Take the Bus =-.

  4. debra dalessandro says

    As a co-consiprator who has helped Carole collect discarded bags of leaves on fall evenings, I can attest to the magic those leaves have done for our soil (which was not very productive when we bought our house 8 years ago). I was dubious that several feet of leaves would break down over the course of one year. Put the proof is in the pudding (or in this case, in the compost-rich soil).
    Our beds are bordered by framed deer fencing that helps contain the leaves (and protect our gardens from the wrestling and racing of our two young hounds), I’m guessing there might be some kind of easy addition that could help Alison keep from losing her leaves to the Kansas winds? Hmmm…we’re smart gals, we can figure this out!

  5. says

    Up to 2′ of leaf mulch in the fall?! Okay, I’d be afraid that I’d overwhelm the crowns of the perennials with that much mulch covering them. I currently use 4-6″ of chopped leaves as mulch, but I keep it away from the base of the perennials. Do you have any problems with basal rosettes rotting out when they’re covered that thickly?
    Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener recently posted..Spanish Needles

  6. Jeanie Newlin says

    My husband sucks up all those leaves with his leaf vacuum which shreds them into little pieces. Into a black trash bag they go. When the bag is full, he wets the leaves, ties a big knot in the top and stores it under the deck to decompose. Next fall we spread this wonderful leaf mulch around the perennials for it to do its business and cover the leaf mulch with some compost to keep it from going anywhere. My awful clay soil improves every year. Don’t get rid of the leaves. They are the best! Have you ever examined the soil in the forest?

    • nina says

      thank you for posting this! I have been looking for someone to pose this question. I too have clay soil; I recently moved from New York to New Jersey, and brought with me my stargazer lilies as well hibiscus perennials, they have done extraordinarily well. However due to the challenging nature of the soil, I have found it difficult to have other types of annuals flourish. and my garden has annoying bare spots.When fall came this year the hubby told me I was crazy, but I am trying to reduce reuse and recycle more. So I raked all of the leaves into my perennial bed as a natural compost mulch. Since i didnt shred, I was wondering if I should remove the leaves, run them over with the mower- and then dig in try to mix them back into the soil around the perrennisls peeking thru. I tried to do this last year with just topsoil with almost no noticeable change so I am leery of breaking my back if I can avoid it.


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