Why You Shouldn’t Clean Up Fallen Leaves From Your Lawn


As the last leaves descend from the oaks and ashes to join the maples already on the ground, a growing number of Hudson Valley residents have no intention of raking them or blowing them away. Leaving dead leaves where they fall saves hours of gardening and/or lawn maintenance money. But the real benefit is for soil, insects and small creatures.

This is not the bizarre opinion of lovers of local plants and types of sustainability; the state department of environmental conservation officially encourages keep yard waste, mulch and leaves on your property. Fall cleanup by ditching is also supported nationwide. In a blog post in mid-October on the USDA websitethe federal agency advises abandoning the “tedious task of raking and bagging leaves and taking them to the landfill”, stating that “the best way to reduce greenhouse gases and benefit your garden is to leave the leaves!”

Left to decompose, the leaves create a natural mulch that suppresses weeds and fertilizes the soil. It can also be used for lawns, vegetable patches and flower gardens, and placed around trees and shrubs. The DEC notes that leaf composting promotes waste reduction and reduces the need for curbside collection. (Note: Burning leaves is illegal in New York.)

According to the USDA, leaf litter “also serves as habitat for wildlife, including lizards, birds, turtles, frogs, and insects.” These creatures are part of a complex natural system that “helps reduce pests and increase pollination in your garden.” (Information on the impact of leaf litter on insect habitats is widely available from government and research institutions, including American fish and wildlife, University of New Hampshire, Penn State and Tufts University.)

Basically, the more leaves on the ground, the better the local environment for wildlife. To this end, Judith Karpova, who handles the City of Rochester Environmental Conservation Commission, also gave up cutting the stems of native plants like goldenrod and lemon balm in the fall. She made this decision by attending events organized by Women Owning Woods, a program run by Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“I started to realize that it wasn’t just pretty interesting individual things popping up here and there. These native plants are actually integrated into a larger system,” she said. “I discovered that all these plants that I had ‘cleaned’ were actually harboring insects during the winter and insect eggs. If you break them down and throw them away, you destroy them.

Rather than being part of the “insect apocalypse,” Karpova now views the empty stems of her property as skyscrapers. “They will always be busy. Insects move up and down inside. There, they are sheltered from the rain, the cold and predators,” she marvels.

Karpova’s approach to fall cleaning was also influenced by the ecologist Douglas Talmywho in his book, “Bringing Nature Home,” writes about how supportive wild oak trees are.

Tallamy’s grip was evident in a note Karpova wrote to her neighbors on NextDoor last month urging others to join her in the “No Kicks October” movement. His plea received more than 25 responses.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how many people in the area are already hooked up,” she said. One supporter said: “The days of lawns maintained by fossil fuels are over.

Yet several of his noisy leaf-blowing neighbors were opposed to the concept, suggesting leaving leaves would mean more ticks and increased allergy and asthma problems. Many feared the piles of leaves would lead to bald patches on lawns in the spring.

“It’s important to know what the objections are,” Karpova said. “One guy said, ‘I look around and all I see is woods, what’s the problem?’ And I’m like, but it’s a different ecosystem than a meadow. And insects are different. Bees do not overwinter in the woods; they overwinter under leaf litter in meadows.

Karpova had a backup on NextDoor in the form of Catskill Native Nursery Diane Greenberg, perhaps the Hudson Valley’s most well-known professional ecological gardener. She claimed her landscaping crew got as many ticks on the lawns as walking in the meadows.

“Our tick problems are mainly due to imbalances in the ecosystem and disruption of the wildlife food chain,” she noted. The lack of wilderness, she says, is to blame for the local abundance of ticks; rodent predators – a primary vector of Lyme – thrive in wild habitats over tidy lawns.

Greenberg also suggests ditching leaf blowers, which some New York state municipalities have banned, at least at certain times of the year. California has passed a law that will phase out the sale of new gas-powered lawn equipment, including blowers, by 2024.

“Leaf blowers operate at the equivalent of 200 mph winds. Their strength easily shatters small creatures like butterflies and moths and can break salamanders’ internal organs,” Greenberg said. Their smog also contributes to climate change. “Rotten leaves enrich your soil…it’s what our forests live for, showing that life feeds on life and doesn’t need anything artificial to help it.”

Karpova is reallocating the time she saved from ditching fall cleaning to rid her property of invasive plants like knotweed and barberry, relying on Information on the DEC on how to deal with them. If she needs to move leaves, she uses a rake. Chopping them could disturb spiders, snails, worms, beetles, centipedes, mites, etc., including animals like chipmunks that depend on them for food.

No pile of leaves has ever made bald patches on her lawn, she said. Karpova also participates in No mowing May for the benefit of bees and pollinators. By the time June arrives, his weed “hasn’t suffered.”

“One of the rewards is you get birds everywhere; they can feed on the native insect population,” she said. “The area around your house is full of songs. It’s so beautiful. You plant your berry and fruit trees, and you get herds. You can’t beat it.

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