The treetops are fiery. The ground is starting to glow with the golds, browns, and tans of autumn. Goldenrod is waning and the hickories and beeches are taking their turn adding that particular hue to the landscape. As all of this color starts a riot in the forests, hedgerows, and lawns, the great “war on leaves” begins.
People with rakes, leaf blowers, and lawn tractors that pile and suck up all those glorious leaves are ramping up for victory… a lawn clear of leaves! I view this as tragic, for so many reasons. Nutrient loss, habitat loss, compromised shelter, depletion of resources, waste.
I mean, let’s think about it for a minute. The trees use water and sunlight and carbon dioxide and minerals and nutrients from the soil. With these they make leaves, new twigs, sugar, and wood. As fall approaches, those leaves fall, no longer needed for the winter for photosynthesis. They are still filled with nutrients and minerals. If those leaves stay on the ground, they decompose (with the help of some fantastic bacteria, fungi, and microscopic and macroscopic critters) and return those nutrients to the soil where the tree and other plants can reuse them.
If you remove those leaves — pack them neatly into yard waste bags and send them to the dump, rake them to the curb for the leaf truck to suck up, pile them into the ditch and burn them – you have just removed a significant amount of nutrients from your lawn, landscaping, and trees. Rather than adding fertilizer, which is what most people do for their landscaping, you are actually removing it. Why?
I’ve always been confused about vast swaths of green lawn. I can understand if it serves a purpose – you like to play bocce, have kids that play pick-up baseball and soccer, have a dog that loves to play fetch. But the expanses of short, trimmed, lawn for no discernable purpose… I just don’t get it. Because it looks nice? Tidy? Because that’s what you were “taught” a yard should look like? That it is a symbol of the human taming of nature? Because you want and excuse to get out of the house for hours at a time? (Ok, I understand this one, but surely you can come up with something other than riding around on a tractor for hours?).
I challenge you to change your status quo. I challenge you to believe that a healthy yard is far beyond a lawn. Seriously, try it.
A diverse “lawn” – one with plantain, dandelion, speedwell, clovers, hawkweeds, and violets – supports a plethora of insects and microorganisms in the soil, that in turn support better plant growth, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and more insects. With that increased soil health, you get better water retention, leading to less stressed grasses come the August heat wave. A diverse yard is frequently green all year-round without those patchy brown areas and rarely, if ever, requires watering.
There are some easy ways to diversify your yard. Stop with the chemicals. All of them. Your yard doesn’t want them; in fact, nothing in your yard wants them. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, they’ll mulch down in and feed your grass. Really, they will. Mow high, not golf-course-low. Leave the “weeds.” And, to neatly wrap this article back to autumn, leave the leaves. Seriously. Just leave them. Mulch them by mowing over them if you need them smaller and less “unsightly.” Rake them to edges, back under the trees. Use them as mulch in your garden, or as a layer in your compost.
Those leaves are essential to many animals. Spring Peepers, those wonderful harbingers of spring, winter over in leaf litter. So do wooly bear caterpillars (a favorite of every child), some butterflies, tons of other insects, Wood Frogs, salamanders, and myriad invertebrates. The leaf litter provides insulation for those that live underground, and once snow falls, they become a subnivean buffet for those same creatures with the addition of some mammals.
Come spring, that recently thawed leaf litter may be the difference between life and death for migrating birds. They scratch through the leaves for all those little crawling beasts to fuel their journey, sometimes from as far away as South America. Without those leaves, your yard is like a desert… devoid of anything sustaining, useless. Perhaps “pretty” to you, but deadly for so much else.
Is it a challenge to break a mindset? You bet. So try to measure the beauty in different ways. Rather than how weed-free your yard is, count how many different birds you see scratching at the leaves. Play I Spy and see how many different insects you can spot. Collect dandelions and make wine or fritters (from you now-chemical-free yard). Are there squirrels? Frogs of toads? Count how many different colors you find in your yard. Close your eyes and listen carefully. How many sounds do you hear coming from the yard?
Will the transition be easy? That depends on you. You have the power to make your yard healthy, green, and filled with a variety of life. If that change is easy, then you’ve got this! If it is more difficult, start little. Leave some leaves this year. See what happens. Let your yard reabsorb the nutrients that it worked hard to translate into foliage. Rejoice that the grass, plants, trees, and critters are well-fed and protected for the winter and spring to come. And celebrate autumn in a while new way.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at Audubon.
For a great resources on healthy yards, check out https://www.healthyyards.org/
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.