You're not lazy—you're saving the planet!
When that crisp fall weather comes in, you probably want to be cozied up with a pumpkin or apple spice beverage and a cashmere sweater—not out dragging a rake through the leaves. So rejoice! There are good reasons for you to cut back on your raking duties, and leave plenty of those fall leaves out there in your landscaping.
Think better soil in your garden, healthier plants, and oh yes—you'll help save the pollinators, too. Here's what to do with your fall leaves (and how to win the argument with your nosiest neighbors).
Benefits of Leaving the Fall Leaves
There are several important reasons to just say no to leaf raking (beyond just wanting more time to have some fall fun).
The leaves protect plant roots
Think of the fall leaves as a protective blanket that you place over your garden in the fall, to help prevent the soil from freezing and damaging your plants.
Related: How to Make a Rain Garden
The leaves can help enrich your soil
"Adding leaves to your garden beds is a great way to reap the benefits of the nutrients that decomposing leaves can add to your soil—without an added cost," says Cate Singleton, design director at Tilly. "Adding mulched leaves also provides added moisture retention and will deter weed growth in the spring."
Remove the leaves if they aren't from a healthy plant
If you have a tree or bush on your property that's affected by pests, fungus, or other diseases, it's best to clean up the leaves to avoid spreading the problem further, Singleton says.
You provide a habitat for overwintering insects
Many insects find a cozy spot to rest for the winter in leaves, including pollinators like butterflies, solitary bees, and moths; plus beneficial insects like ladybugs.
How to Minimize Raking and Maximize the Benefits
There are a few tricks to making the most of your autumn leaves—and there may be a little bit of work to do to get the most out of the plant matter.
Break out the mower
Leaving a thick layer of leaves on your lawn as-is could cause lawn problems by blocking sunlight and smothering the grass. "Excessive leaf cover can also create a damp environment, promoting mold and fungi growth, especially if you live in a cold and wet climate," says Kevin Lenhart, design director at Yardzen.
Lenhart recommends mulching or mowing the leaves (ideally with a mulching electric mower) to chop them up and make it easier for them to decompose and enrich your soil.
Move the leaves into your garden
If you like a clean lawn look (or you live somewhere where the HOA won't let you leave the leaves where they fall), raking them into your garden will provide the maximum benefit with minimal mess or effort.
Chopping up the leaves will help keep them from blowing around, and make it easier to get the maximum benefit. "Mulching the leaves, meaning breaking them into smaller pieces, will help facilitate the organic matter breaking down into the soil quicker," Singleton says. Keep in mind that you may disturb some of the wildlife in the leaves when you're chopping them.
Leave the dormant plants too
Both birds and bugs can use these leftover plants as habitat or food during the winter, Lenhart says. "If you don’t like the look of dead plant material in your garden, bundle up plant stalks and place them in a more hidden part of your yard or garden so the bugs can still make good use out of them,"
Wait until the last frost to do your spring cleanup
There will still be plant material in the spring, and it's going to look a little grungy after a long winter. But Lenhart recommends letting it stay. "You may be eager to tidy up as soon as that first mild day hits, but if you clean up the remaining leaf litter too early, you can damage some of the wildlife that you’ve been helping to protect all winter. Wait until the last late freezes have passed, your plants are showing signs of new growth, and the soil temperature consistently reaches a level suitable for the plants in your garden."
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