Autumn’s auditory assault: Let falling leaves lie
Obsessive autumn yard clean-ups are underway in my neighborhood, and communities just about everywhere. Is there any noise more annoying than the incessant, whining drone of mowers, trimmers and leaf blowers? There is no escape, as the loud low-frequency sound of 2-stroke gasoline engines carries over a long distance and penetrates walls and windows. And is any sight more ridiculous than a hapless homeowner wearing a leaf blower backpack chasing leaves around the yard? Power equipment noise drowns out birds, tree crickets and other seasonal sounds. Landscapers ride around lawns as big as football fields, mowing barely dry grass within an inch of its life and blasting leaves with 200-mph winds. They haul it away, in bags and trucks, like garbage. This assault will continue over the next several weeks, into December, until every last leaf, stem and twig has been removed.
Somehow, meticulous mowing, raking and yard clean-up has become ingrained in our cultural psyche as required activities for responsible property management. Obviously, this is a pitch for why we should mow and rake less, and recycle grass clippings, herbaceous stems and leaves in our yards, rather than treating it like hazardous waste. The plants and animals in our yards are integral members of living outdoor habitat. Our lives interconnect and sustain each other. Viewing the land, including our yards, as a community of which we are a part, recognizes our relationship with animals, plants, soil and the ecology of a place. Learning to understand and respect the natural community leads to a sense of responsibility for its health and care, and can help guide decision-making and activities (including mowing and raking). If more property owners understand the natural role and importance of dead plants and leaves, they may decide to adjust their yard routines.
Three reasons why you should leave fallen leaves:
(1) The trees in your yard need them! Removing leaf litter from underneath deciduous trees and shrubs deprives plants of vital nutrients created and stored in their leaves during the growing season through the process of photosynthesis. By nature’s design, decaying leaves fertilize the soil and release nutrients into the ground where they are absorbed by tree roots.
(2) Fallen leaves create a protective blanket that offers critical refuge for different animals and insects. When we remove it, (especially when we put it in plastic or paper bags), and haul it away, we end the life cycles of many native animals that are important to the environmental health and stability of our backyards and adjacent habitats. Decomposing leaves naturally turn a dark brown color that commercial mulches try to duplicate.
(3) Reduce noise and air pollution. Gasoline-powered equipment emits cancer-causing benzene, smog-producing nitrogen oxides and planet-warming carbon dioxide while excessive noise poses serious health concerns. Think of the fuel and electricity used to power leaf blowers, mowers and shredders, and for hauling leaves away. Save time and money while helping to keep the air clean and return peace and quiet to your neighborhood. Leaving leaves under the trees that produce them and reducing the size of your lawn is the environmentally responsible thing to do.
Along with many migrant birds, the last generations of monarchs are heading to Mexico. But what happens to all the butterflies, moths, crickets, and other wildlife whose presence has enriched our lives, yards and gardens during the past spring and summer? Unlike Monarchs and a few dragonflies, most insects do not migrate. They stay close to home — as adults, larvae or eggs — finding places to overwinter. For many, leaf litter is their winter destination. Salamanders, toads, spring peepers, fireflies, queen bumblebees and the eggs, caterpillars or pupae of native butterflies, moths and many pollinating insects and invertebrates, overwinter on the ground in leaves. We know that pollinating insects have declined dramatically and many species are disappearing. Our landscaping practices are part of the problem, and the solution. When we rake up and remove leaves, especially when we haul them off site, we disrupt their life cycles, killing them before they emerge as adult moths and butterflies. For the next month, before freezing temperatures set in, notice how many bees, flies and moths find the last flowers blooming in sheltered spots and gardens (if we haven’t pulled them out or cut them down). In winter, chickadees and woodpeckers will find insect larvae in the dead stems.
Raking and yard work is indeed great exercise and, as someone who enjoys exercise, I manually remove leaves from my front steps, driveway and patio in late fall, after all the leaves have fallen. I do not take any leaves away from my property. Instead, I rake them into large beds beneath oaks, hickories and other trees. A few judiciously placed sticks keep leaves from blowing away, and they too will become part of a deep layer of mulch that supports tree health. Instead of buying processed mulch, I use leaves in perennial beds and underneath foundation plantings.
Take a walk in any New England woodland — leaves fall, stay on the forest floor, and decompose, season after season, in a natural recycling process that has been happening for over 100 million years. Every year, understory plants emerge and leaf out in spring. Instead of maintaining a large (often seldom used) lawn and paying to have leaves removed and hauled away, consider reducing the size of your lawn. Convert part of your yard to meadow and mow once a year. Create beds underneath the trees in your yard, especially where you have native species like oak, birch and maple. Tree diversity is important — every species has associated bird and insect life that plays a critical role in the community. There is no need to rake leaves out in the spring, as there is much life in this beautiful natural mulch. Consider planting a variety of native shrubs, wildflowers, and bulbs. Their colorful flowers, fruits and foliage supports various life stages of pollinating insects.
Environmental health and sustainability depend on biological diversity. Re-wilding our back yards is a choice we can make as part of living an environmentally responsible and sustainable life. The loss of biodiversity and the process of extinction is happening all around us — from birds and butterflies to whales — and these declines are well-documented by scientists worldwide. There are plenty of autumn activities besides mowing and leaf blowing that are quiet, productive and environmentally friendly: pick applies, make a pie, trim evergreens and get a head start on a holiday wreath, remove invasive plants, start a compost pile (a good place for extra leaves!). Learn to identify and appreciate the trees, plants and associated wildlife in your neighborhood. The health of our environment, and our own health, depends on it!
Maggie Jones, landscape ecologist/consultant and Tree Warden for the town of Stonington, is director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. She lives in Groton.
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