Every year, one of the fun traditions of autumn is to rake the leaves in your yard into a big pile and let children, dogs, and sometimes adults jump in them! This has been going on for a very long time due to an unfortunate belief that fallen leaves are inherently harmful to our lawns and create dead spots due to the leaf coverage. This couldn’t be further from the truth—leaf litter is healthy and beneficial for our lawns when handled correctly. It might not look as tidy to leave the leaves during the fall, but they provide several important benefits for your soil as well as the grass and plants that grow in it.
National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski had this wisdom to offer, “Fallen leaves offer a double benefit. Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilizes the soil as it breaks down.”
Leaving the leaves provides a natural mulch for your lawn and actually forms a protective layer that keeps it covered without stifling it (in the right amounts). You can avoid having to purchase store-bought mulch and fertilizer simply by choosing to skip the task of raking your leaves. The leaves also feed important microbes in your soil, maintaining healthy soil biology that excels at supporting your grass and plants. It creates a somewhat untidy look throughout the fall and winter months, but it’s certainly in the spirit of the season, and it will produce a healthier, more robust lawn when the next spring comes.
Leaving the leaves isn’t as simple as just doing nothing and letting the leaves fall where they may—it’s never that easy. While some or most of the leaves can be left alone if you choose to leave them covering the lawn, there will be areas where the leaves pile up significantly. Thick areas of leaves need to be thinned down to keep them from smothering your grass throughout the winter. While a thin layer is beneficial, a thick layer will cause problems.
One of the best ways to deal with excess leaves is to put them in your garden or in piles around the base of trees and large shrubs. If you don’t want any leaves covering your lawn, you can simply pile them up in your garden for free mulch. This can raise soil fertility and keep your yard looking tidy.
Many small animals and insects use fallen leaves as cover and an important food source throughout the winter season. When you bag leaves or chop them up, you destroy this precious resource for the wildlife around you. This can cause harm to populations of bees, moths, butterflies, worms, beetles, and other insects. Unfortunately, this also harms populations of amphibians, turtles, birds, and other insectivores that need these bugs as a food source throughout the winter season.
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