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Posts Tagged ‘rake leaves’

Photos: Suzanne and John’s Mom.
The movement to promote native species as protectors of the environment is gaining steam. Native species love your discarded leaves.

I haven’t had any luck yet persuading my own family and friends about the advantages of unraked yards, but after all, it took a few years for my friend Jean, the native-plant evangelist, to get through to me.

In recent years, a range of stories on the topic have appeared as the national media has caught on. I will list a few articles at the end. But perhaps the best explanation of the thinking behind unraked yards — and the best how-to — can be found at the Wild Seed Project.

Anna Fialkoff talks about rethinking garden clean-up. “While planting native plants is an essential step toward creating habitat, how we manage our plantings will determine whether we can sustain and support the life-cycles and successful reproduction of many other organisms including birds, butterflies, moths, bees, salamanders, and frogs.

“Autumn is when many of us think to put our gardens to bed by removing leaves and cutting back perennials. Yet to truly support living creatures year round, it’s much better to leave fallen leaves, branches, stems, and seed heads where they are rather than raking, blowing, shredding, or cutting them away. Leaves and other organic matter insulate plant roots through the cold winter months and then decompose to build up living soil critical to healthy vegetation.

This organic matter also stores large amounts of carbon, which is crucial to supporting a climate-resilient planet. …

“Many species of butterflies and moths, including our beloved luna moth, pupate and overwinter in leaves before emerging as stunning winged adults the following spring. Raking away the leaves is very disruptive to that life in the leaf litter. Leaf blowers are even more damaging, and also create noise pollution and use large amounts of fossil fuels – please discontinue this practice.

“Undisturbed leaf litter is also essential to the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, which requires two seasons to complete its life cycle. After a first season of foraging on its host plant (white turtlehead) the caterpillars crawl down and overwinter in the leaf litter. This once common butterfly is in decline due to loss of habitat and poor gardening practices. [See pictures here.]

“Other small creatures like the eastern newt, as well as many species of salamanders and frogs, spend the frigid winter months hibernating under the protection of leaves, rocks, and logs.

“For many, leaf management can feel like a never-ending burden in the fall. Even if we want to leave the leaves, we can’t let them accumulate everywhere or they will smother the grass, clog sewer heads, and leave a slippery layer to get mushed into the ground by cars, snowblowers and pedestrians.

The problem is not that deciduous trees shed ‘too many’ leaves, but that we have developed our landscapes and removed natural areas. Too much space is now taken up by driveways, streets, sidewalks, and lawn.

“Leaves are an exceptionally valuable resource! They contain nutrients and organic matter that we should keep on site, instead of raking or blowing them from off our lawns and driveways and into the woods, or stuffing them into leaf collection bags to be taken off site. We can find more places for the leaves to go by shrinking our lawns, creating more planting space, and consolidating the excess leaves that fall outside our planting beds.

“Using leaves as mulch for a planting bed is a free alternative to buying bark mulch or other expensive and harmful inputs such as fertilizers and dyed mulches. The space under a tree is an especially critical place to keep leaves since many butterfly and moth caterpillars drop down from trees into the leaf litter to pupate and overwinter. …

“Still too many leaves? Rake the leaves that fall outside the planting beds into a pile. Yes, in this case raking is okay (and leaf piles are necessary for jumping in!). Our goal is to not remove them from within our planting beds, which benefit from the organic matter and insulation for the cold winter months, limiting disturbance to the leaf litter and any overwintering creatures.

“Move your leaf pile somewhere it can compost in place over the next growing season. You will be surprised by how quickly it shrinks down. Or, make a leaf fence! Coil up chicken wire into columns and arrange them side by side. Fill them with leaves. You’ll find that you can’t use the leaves up fast enough since they break down so quickly. Before you know it you’ll be stealing the curbside leaf collection bags from your neighbors to keep your leaf fence full. Suddenly one person’s yard waste is another’s treasure. …

“Inevitably, leaves will blow around and pile up in various corners of the yard. Rather than repeatedly removing leaves from the same spots, pause and pay attention to where they tend to accumulate or blow away, and plant accordingly.

“Plant strong stemmed plants like ferns, baneberries and bugbanes, coneflowers, or milkweeds in the areas where leaves accumulate. Leaves often form a deeper layer in low, concave spaces of the landscape, like at the bottom of a slope or a valley.

“There are a few ground covers like sedges, creeping and rock phlox, pussytoes, bearberry, and groundsels, that can get smothered by leaves. Plant them in spots where the wind strips leaves away. Leaves don’t tend to stay put on elevated, convex landforms, so don’t fight it and work with what you have.

“Wait until spring, just as you begin to notice sprouting and emergence, to remove leaves that get stuck in the crevices between rocks, against fences, and within shrubs.

042118-trout-lily-brick-wal
The native trout lily has no problem pushing through 2″ to 6″ of leaf litter.

“A common worry of gardeners is that plants cannot push through whole leaves or thick layers of leaves. Many woodland natives, even ephemerals like trout lily and squirrel corn, that are adapted to soils rich in organic matter created by decomposing leaves, have no trouble emerging through a good 2-6” of leaves.”

Fialkoff even gets into leaving the sticks and making outdoor art if you are so inclined, but I will stop now and let you read the rest at the Wild Seed Project, here. More at the Nature Conservancy, here, Audubon, here, and USA Today, here. No firewalls.

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