Transform Your Fall Garden with the Power of Leaf Litter.
As a master naturalist, I learn more about nature daily and how we are a substantial, intricate part of nature. This fall, as the leaves started sharing loose from the trees, I was keenly observant of the leaf litter around me and the beautiful carpet of yellow and brown leaves from local maple, beech, black walnut, and oak trees.
In past years, I used my lawn mower to mulch and collect fallen leaves, adding them to our compost pile or spreading them around trees, garden shrubs, and in my flower and herb beds.
Keep leaves where they have fallen.
This year, I decided to try something different and left most of the leaves on the ground where they had fallen. In fact, I also left the native plants – sunflowers, Joe Pye weed, New England asters, mountain mint, Echinacea, Goldenrod, and more – untouched this year, allowing them to catch and trap fallen leaves in between their stalks instead of cutting them back.
Our yard might look unkempt and messy at first glance, but the leaf litter is full of life that we cannot see. Did you know that leaf litter is a natural habitat that provides food, protection, shelter, water, nesting, and hunting sites for pollinating insects – bees, flies, wasps, moths, caterpillars like the Woolly bear (also known as the Isabella tiger moth) and other moths during the cold winter?
Joe Pye Weed
New England Asters
Day-flying moths are excellent pollinators.
The beautiful hummingbird clearwing moth spends a part of its life under leaf litter. I was excited to see two hummingbird clearwing moths in our backyard this past summer collecting nectar from the monarda known as bee balm. Other insects that have been declining in numbers, such as glowing insects (lightning bugs, lightning beetles, fireflies, and glow worms) live in leaf litter. Amphibians, snails, earthworms, turtles, and salamanders love leaf litter, especially if it’s near a water source. Woodland mice, squirrels, and birds nest in leaf litter. Birds not migrating to warmer climates consume dried plant seed food sources and water from leaf and plant litter. The oven bird that forages for arthropods in ground litter and low-growing ground covers makes its nests on the ground out of leaf litter in shapes that resemble tiny ovens.
So, now that you know how leaf litter benefits pollinating insects, amphibians, and birds, let’s look at other ways leaf litter is a critical part of our ecosystem:
- Leaf litter and small branches can be collected for use in raised bed mulching, composting, and weed-suppressing.
- Leaf litter helps prevent erosion from rain by protecting soil from loosening and dislodging sediment that can wash away into nearby storm drains, watersheds, and rivers.
- The top layer of leaf litter contributes to the water cycle by allowing water to penetrate forest soils, thereby recharging the groundwater aquifers.
- Decomposing fall leaves are full of plant essential nutrients; billions of microscopic life – bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrates – add life back into nutrient-deficient soil. Deteriorating leaves also release minerals like nitrogen, calcium, and potassium into the soil that are recycled and used again as food for plants and trees.
This year, rethink your fall garden cleanup and all the benefits leaf litter provides to plants, animals, and local habitats. What opportunities do you have to support this critical biodiversity?