What’s in a Leaf Pile, Or Why Not to Do Fall Clean-up

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What’s in a Leaf Pile?

A lot of potential for life is in a leaf pile. Many beneficial (and beautiful) insects overwinter in our yards. For instance, the Katydid (important food source for birds during late summer) and Preying Mantis overwinter as eggs attached to twigs, stems, and/or leaves. Ladybugs and Lacewings also spend the winter in our gardens.  Native bees find winter homes in soil, plants (stems, under grasses), and leaves. Cutting down a garden and removing all litter in the fall reduces these insect populations, most of which are beneficial. According to the University of Maine, 97% of insects in our yards are beneficial.  Furthermore, many of these insects are critical food sources for migrating birds and for birds raising their young. 95% of birds feed insects to their young even if the adults eat seeds (Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home).  Keeping your healthy leaves either as garden mulch or in piles under trees or shrubs will offer you many benefits over the year. This plant material will:

Luna Moth Cocoon Jack Gibson

Luna moth cocoon secured to an oak leaf. Photo courtesy of J. Gibson

  • • feed microorganisms which feed your plants (there are complicated relationships under ground); these organisms in turn clean the water and air and improve soil texture.  Many woodland/savannah plants require the leaf layer for the resulting rich humus.
  • • keep water levels stable–absorbs more water, drains better, and keeps moisture available to your plants through drought(lots of seeming contradictions but it’s true).
  • • mulch your garden through the winter.
  • • provide refuge for overwintering bees, butterflies, moths, and other beneficial insects.
  • • provide food for those above creatures provides food for birds.
  • • provide cover for birds (they prefer having stems to perch on and hop around; less stress while foraging).
  • • reduce the need to buy bags of mulch or compost and the associated pollution and costs connected to those items (plastic bags, transportation).
  • • reduce pressure on finances and resources of the village; money saved there could go to more positive use.

We created a sign to help communicate why we are allowing gardens to stand through the winter. Please feel free to download, print, and hang in your garden. No Fall Clean Up     

For further reading: Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalist and Gardeners, James B. Nardi.

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition,  Lowenfels and Lewis

Habitat Network’s post on Leaf “Litter”

Tiger Swallowtail Wood Lily

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail–overwinters as a chrysalis, usually attached to a stem or twig but could attach to a leaf. Many trees are host plants: Ashes, Tulip Tree, Magnolias, Birches, Willows, Black Cherry.

Jack in the Pulpit, quintessential woodland plant

Jack in the Pulpit, quintessential woodland plant. It requires a rich woodland soil, only possible through the slow decomposition of whole leaves. 

5 Responses to “What’s in a Leaf Pile, Or Why Not to Do Fall Clean-up”

  1. Donald Nekrosius

    Texture, color, shadowing, seed head, stem, sere leaf and granules of mulch, over bare soil, above the snow when we’re lucky enough to get some, moving in the wind, coated in rime, perch for birds and snug home for bugs–what’s not to like. It’s all in how you screw the eyes into your head. Attach them too firmly and all you want to see is ordered array. Install them too loosely and you miss the palette. But screw them in just right and what to other eyes looks rank and unkempt, to nature’s eyes looks like a pleasing way station between the seasons.

  2. Debbie

    I have made it a habit to not do a fall cleanup but I am confused. Should I not do a cleanup at all in the Spring? I cut back my grasses and cleanup stalks but leave some for the birds. So should I be leaving the leaves on all year?


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