Save the Leaf Litter for the Critters!

By Ryleigh Mullens

With the holiday season quickly approaching, life can get chaotic. The spooky season calls for costume making, pumpkin carving, and fall cleaning! However, if there's one chore to skip this autumn, it's raking! We love to admire the leaves as they change color, but as the first leaf litters the yard, we may feel compelled to rake them into neat little piles and bag them to be shipped to a landfill. 

However, experts say that raking leaves can detriment the health of your yard and the local environment. Leaving even a thin layer of leaves on the ground has immense benefits for your local ecosystem. Here’s what you need to know about managing leaf fall this autumn. 


Like other organic matter, leaves break down in moist environments, decomposing into the earth. As the leaves deteriorate, they release nutrients back into the soil, creating an ecologically self-regulated compost at the base of trees and shrubs. The roots of these trees and bushes recycle the nutrients, storing them for use next spring! Additionally, the layer of leaves suppresses weeds and reduces competition for nutrients and space at the root zone of other plants. We can help accelerate this process by mowing the lawn which cuts leaves into smaller pieces and allows for more rapid decomposition by soil microorganisms.

Ecosystem Services: not only do leaves support soil systems but the flora and fauna in our surrounding ecosystem as well. Leaves provide habitat for a myriad of wildlife species including invertebrates like earthworms, pillbugs, and beetles; small mammals such as chipmunks, shrews, and field mice; and amphibians like toads, frogs, and salamanders. These animals provide important ecosystem services and function as food for animals at higher trophic levels such as birds and mammals. Raking leaves disrupts the delicate balance of the natural environment, a network of relationships we sometimes forget that humans are a part of and heavily influence. 

Environmental Consequences:

Nearly 10.5 million tons of yard trimmings and landscape waste enter landfills each year; this accounts for nearly 28% of all household waste. As this organic waste breaks down in inefficient systems such as landfills, greenhouse gases are emitted and contribute to climate change. Opt to feed our soil and the microorganisms that inhabit it for a net positive effect this fall. Using a leafblower to move leaves from the yard can also be disruptive, accumulating foreign debris in drains and local waterways which can create clogs in sewage systems and grates. Furthermore, leaves can accumulate in the streams and rivers that residential drains pour into, affecting the water quality and the species that have adapted to live in the aquatic environment. 


Of course, there are always exceptions to abstaining from raking- standards set by homeowners associations, grumpy neighbors, or a yard so inundated with leaf litter it is beyond use. So here are a few alternatives! If possible, create brush shelters, a small area of loose leaf piles surrounded by a dome of logs and large branches. This structure can serve as an isolated shelter for small mammals or hibernating amphibians and, if placed at the root zone of trees and bushes, still provides a degree of nutrient recycling. 

Remember, any leaves extracted from the property are still valuable and can be utilized to ecologically enhance the environment come spring. Composting the leaves, for example, produces a carbon-rich, nutrient-dense soil amendment to be applied in gardens when the earth warms. Alternatively, you can use the leaves to mulch raised beds and other areas over winter, subduing any weeds that may fight to the surface come spring. 

We must take responsibility for our role within the earth we steward and acknowledge the effect of our intervention. We are empowered to do every bit of good we can for the environment we engage with- be it a yard, garden, or farm. So resist the urge and strike one thing off your weekend to-do list! Focus on breaking out the fall decorations, perfecting your at-home pumpkin spice latte, and picking the perfect apple.