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Where Should You 'Leave Your Leaves'?

Q. Teresa in Stillwater Oklahoma writes: "I know you love Fall leaves; so do I. However, I'd like to suggest that you update your information on leaves. Leaves left alone provide habitat and food for creatures that nourish birds, butterflies, lightning bugs, and numerous other species, not to mention the earth itself. These species are already under stress from changes in the climate which may even cause some to die off. We need to be cognizant of and respectful toward the wee ones. Thank you for your consideration.

"PS: I collect leaves from neighborhoods where people don't understand this concept. The leaves are prebagged, so they're not difficult to collect. I just have to pull the odd bit of trash out of them."

A. Teresa raises a couple of good points, so let's review my philosophy on leaves, with the caveat that not everyone can do as I do. My house is surrounded by trees, and most of the land around it is heavily wooded, with a stream running through it, so I can have my leaves and...and...well, not eat them too. That would be too weird, even for me. But thanks to my landscape, I can leave some and harvest the rest.

If you could see the view from my office window (where I saw two beautiful foxes playing like puppies in the woods last week), you'd see that the area to the left of the house (on the other side of the stream) and beyond the fenced-in backyard (to try and contain the Great Pyrenees we rescued) is covered several inches deep in leaves. I have never harvested leaves 'from the wild', with the same intentions as Teresa; to leave wild areas wild, somewhat for the benefit of any creatures that prefer this habitat, but mostly for the health of the trees that derive nutrition from those leaves when they eventually break down.

But I try and suck up every leaf that falls around the house and garden, for several reasons. The first is common sense. As everyone who has driven on a wet, leaf-covered road knows all too well, whole wet leaves defy the concept of traction. Winter in the North is treacherous enough for slip-and-fall risk; leaving my patio covered with wet leaves would probably cancel my insurance policy, if not cancel me personally.

And leaving whole leaves on my garden beds would smother the soil, encourage mold, possibly kill my fall-planted garlic and prevent many of my Spring bulbs from emerging properly, especially the early-blooming 'minor bulbs' like Glory of Snow and Snowdrops. That last part is especially important; in winters when snow hits early and stays late, I sometimes miss the window to suck up and shred the leaves over top of where my Spring bulbs are sleeping and the result is always a disaster; a frantic effort to recue the emerging plants from this frozen tarp of death that only results in my raking up more bulbs than leaves.

In addition to an all-too-early freeze, my back went out this Fall (it's much better now, thank you) in the middle of my shredding, and I know that some Spring bulb locations are still covered by matted down wet-and/or-frozen leaves. That's number one on my to-do list; to try and free up those areas on the next nice day before the early bulbs start to emerge. Some of those shredded leaves will go into my compost piles, some will be saved in giant trash cans for garden mulching in the Spring, and many will be dumped right back down where they were after being shredded.

Whereby whole leaves mat down and smother the ground, shredded leaves allow air and water through. And plants like spring bulbs, garlic, peonies and hosta that might otherwise be smothered by whole leaves easily push through the light loose mulch of shredded leaves. (OK--hostas could push through sheet metal; just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)

Same with my garden beds: I suck up the whole leaves and then empty the collection bag of shredded leaves right back on top of the beds to prevent weeds, erosion and having to carry the bag back to my compost piles.

Lawns: It is crucial to get every whole leaf offa your lawn. Early in the season, it's fine to use your lawn mower to mulch the leaves back into the grass, but do not attempt this if the ground is frozen. Mowing frozen grass rips the grass blades to shreds. It is much better at this point to suck the leaves up with a leaf blower set on reverse and then empty the bag into your compost piles or save them for garden mulch next Spring.

Trashpicking (or, as I like to call it, rescuing SPBs): Back when I was younger I would troll the streets of nearby Emmaus looking for SPBs put out at the curb every fall. If they were filled with leaves alone, I would take them home and store them for shredding in the Spring. But if they were a combination of leaves and grass clippings, I would either leave them at the curb or take them home and dump them in the woods. Never trust clippings from an unknown lawn. If that lawn was treated with commercial herbicides, the clippings and any compost made from them could be deadly to non-grass plants.

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