Leave the Leaves!

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Let the Leaves Work for You…

Relief for the Reluctant Leaf Raker

By Betsy Kraus, Master Gardener Volunteer in Chatham County

If you’ve been staring at your leafy yard a bit too long, embrace your inner laziness and read on! Here are some work saving options:

Do Less

Wherever possible, let leaves stay where they fall. They are a recycling system, along with a web of organisms, to return nutrients to the tree that dropped them. By leaving the leaves you are caring for the turtles, birds, and butterflies, yes, but you are also feeding and providing shelter for the smaller leaf litter critters who eat the leaves, the critters who eat the critters who eat the leaves, the critters who use the leaves to hide and stay warm, and those who deposit their eggs there. You help maintain a healthy ecosystem in your yard and a diverse web of organisms that depend on each other and recycle the leaves too. The leaves also help retain moisture and slow water runoff. Let them do all that work for you!

Mulch

Use a mulching mower to grind up leaves in lawn areas. The ground-up leaves will decompose and provide nutrients for your lawn. When the leaf fall is too heavy to be absorbed by the lawn, run the mower over the leaves and then rake the nicely ground-up leaves into nearby plant beds.

Reduce

Reduce your lawn area to the minimum needed for recreation and other uses. Then you won’t need to mow or rake as much! Consider replacing turf grasses with flower beds, shrubs, sedges, or mosses especially for those shady areas that are not good habitats for turfgrass. Find out more at this extension site on lawns and lawn alternatives.

Reuse

Rather than pack your leaves up in bags or burning them, here are some ways you can use your leaves:

  • Let leaf piles decompose: The resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention. Once they’re in the pile, they do the work for you.
  • Make compost: Combine fallen leaves (“brown material”) with grass clippings and other “green material” and keep moist and well mixed. You’ll have nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden next spring. Learn more about composting at the NC State Extension Composting portal.
  • Build a brush shelter: Along with branches, sticks, and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles that shelter native wildlife. And those piles, too, will slowly decompose and provide you with some nice compost in a few years.
american toad in eaf litter

The American toad (Anaxyrus americanus) uses leaf litter to hide and hibernate. Image: Judy Galagher CC BY 2.0

Still too many leaves? Share them with neighbors, friends, schools, gardens, and others. Some communities will pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.

Then sit back and relax, knowing that leaving the leaves not only saves you work and time, it reduces pollution and waste, creates habitat for other creatures, and fertilizes the soil.

What to do with all the time you save? Take a kid outside to see what you can find in the leaf litter. Life in the Leaf Litter, an easy-to-understand and nicely illustrated booklet that describes the types of critters you might find. Print out this ID card and take it with you to help you give the critters a name. Exploring with a kid…. now that’s time well spent!

For more resources on ‘Leave the Leaves’ campaigns, including great information from the Audubon Society and the Xerces Society, visit: https://go.ncsu.edu/leavetheleaves