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Leave the leaves alone: Okanagan’s Nature Nut

Fallen foilage benefits plants, insects, birds
Leave the leaves that fall in fall. (Roseanne Van Ee photo)

The Okanagan’s Nature Nut

Roseanne Van Ee

Here’s a simple action to help save wildlife, reduce greenhouse gases and benefit your home garden while saving you time and money.

Leave leaves that fall in fall.

Autumn leaves from deciduous trees and shrubs carpet the ground beneath them. But they’re not trash!

A leaf layer of a few inches is its own ecosystem. Plus they decompose to help enrich the plants’ complex soil ecosystem beneath them. Butterflies, moths, worms, bumblebees, centipedes, millipedes, springtails, snails, slugs, thousands of insect species and sometimes even chipmunks, wood frogs, toads, shrews, salamanders and more thrive in these leafy habitats.

A favourite ancient Chinese saying is, “Where there’s a worm, there’s a leaf to help.”

Insects can overwinter as eggs, pupae or adults. In fact, most moth species rely on the leaf layer to complete their lifecycle. The caterpillars burrow under leaves and pupate in cocoons, emerging as adults in spring.

Our backyard birds rely on butterfly and moth caterpillars as their baby birds first food. So keep the leaves with their insects around your yard to attract birds.

If you rake away your leaves, you may be raking away butterfly chrysalis’ or moth cocoons and harming them. Leaving your leaves alone also allows you to get a better head start in terms of pest control in the spring.

Many overwintering pest-controlling insects like ladybugs may be in your leaves. So leaving them alone will allow these insects a better chance to survive and start their aphid-eating feast earlier in the spring.

October means flowering plants have wilted and are dying back. These create habitat for many different pollinators. During the fall, many insects and pollinators look for places to hibernate such as in stems of old plants, leaf piles or in the top level of soil under leaves or dead plants.

‘Leaf-tosser’ birds like robins, thrushes, towhees, sparrows, crows, etc. find food in these leaves. Watch them as they pick up and fling leaves aside in search of seeds, worms, spiders, and insects.

Which do you prefer anyways – spending time watching birds in your yard and hearing them sing, or working with the roar of a leaf blower? Besides gas-powered blowers and mowers seriously produce air pollution affecting our health and contributing to climate change.

In addition to sheltering wildlife, leaves decompose releasing carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil where they can nourish plants, beneficial fungi and other microorganisms. Leaves create a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds while fertilizing the soil. And a leaf layer insulates your sleeping perennials, giving them the best chance to come back strong in spring for a healthy garden from less work in the fall.

Leaves and other yard debris create millions of tons of landfill waste annually. This generates methane gas in landfills, polluting the air we breathe, and leaching into the soil and water. And don’t burn your leaves – this creates smoke and uncontrolled fire risk.

Clean leaves off walkways, but leave them under the trees, bushes and flower beds. Any on your lawn can be chopped with a mower into mulch for insulation and natural fertilizer. Put any extras into your compost.

The best option is to create a landscape where you don’t have to mow, blow or rake at all, and let leaves fall where they may. Add native plants to your yard to provide wildlife with food, cover and places to raise their young.

Roseanne Van Ee enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Follow her on Facebook for more.