Leave the leaves? I think not.

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Left here, these leaves are a nuisance now that will be just as much of a nuisance in the spring.

It’s the bad gardening advice that will not die. Why? Because it sounds so great, so freeing, so right. What? I don’t have to rake anymore? I can leave the leaves that fell all over my lawn and flower beds exactly where they are? What’s wrong with that? That’s awesome!

Actually, this is fine forest management advice. On the forest floor, leaves drop and gradually decay, the operative word being gradually. Nobody rakes them or has to. In urban and suburban neighborhoods, it’s not quite the same. For example, on my street, the area in front of my house, including the sidewalk and neighboring driveways, is now inches deep in thick Norway maple leaves (with some other maples mixed in). We have dense tree cover for a city street. The leaves on the hardscaping are not going to do anything except maybe end up in the storm drains, where they’ll clog things up and add some extra algal content to our rivers and lakes for good measure. Obviously, they are not adding organic benefit to the sidewalk.

Then there are the leaves completely covering my front perennial beds. If left, they will simply remain, a heavy, sodden mat. Time to decay? Maybe a couple years. I’ve never seen it. They’ll block oxygen from the soil, and, if I had a lawn, they would do their best to smother it. As it is, if I left them, in the spring I would have bulbs struggling up, each green spike surrounded by a creepy brown collar, with pale green perennial shoots crushed underneath, unseen. Not really what we’re aiming for with a garden.

There are good ways to deal with leaves that, sadly, are not mentioned in these science-free, commonsense-horticulture-free posts from well-meaning wildlife organizations. Yes, leaves can be left to mulch perennial beds, but leaves like mine should be shredded first. For lawns, a mulching mower will break up the leaves, allowing them to benefit plants and soil. Unfortunately, the National Wildlife Federation link (from 2014) mentioned above does not bother to mention any of these strategies. (I do agree with not cutting back perennials or clearing beds as part of a “fall clean-up” effort.) By the way, where I live, the city picks up bagged leaves and takes them to a composting operation.

I was hesitant to harp on this yet again. Susan already has, and so have I. And I wouldn’t have done it this year if an enewsletter I otherwise trust for good links and info had not included the NWF’s misguided leaf post as its first link this week. And members of my facebook gardening group are also posting it. So once more into the fray we go. There is science to back the case that heavy leaf cover harms soil and plants, but you don’t even need to read it. Leave a heavy blanket of leaves on your lawn without shredding them or mowing over them and see what happens.

When it comes to the natural environment, most of my friends are on the “science first!” bandwagon, as am I. But too many of them stop short of horticultural science.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

30 COMMENTS

  1. One more thing – there are specific perennials that are most vulnerable to being smothered by leaves all winter, and they’re almost never mentioned. Makes sense that they’re the sun-loving, dry-loving ones that don’t naturally grow near deciduous trees, like succulents and Lamb’s ears.

    • a good point Susan. I leave all leaves in my shade garden and it has done nothing but improve the soil and stop weeds. The shade perennials and shrubs thrive. I hate absolute rules whether it is “leave the leaves” or “don’t leave the leaves” Better to understand the plants and what is going on. Check out the perennial beds Ethyl Dutky installed in the shaded areas of our common areas. Almost no maintenance when leaves are left and it looks great.

  2. I’m glad you harped on this. But for God’s sake I wish people would stop spreading bad advice!!! I just gave myself permission to not pick up the leaves this year based on what I presumed was pretty good advice from a so-called expert. Now, dammit, I have to get out there and pick up the leaves. I have mostly sun loving drought tolerant perennials so your advice does make sense. But tell me: what about all those people who are saying let the leaves lie there as protection and food for insects? Sheesh.

  3. Gardening is over simplified in so many articles and books these days. I rely on experience and advice from my long deceased elders ‘Everything worthwhile takes time and effort’. This applies to gardening and most endeavors in life. Great article and thank you.

  4. Well there are other ways to help insects, many other ways. (I’m pretty sure I have mainly pillbugs hiding under my leaves.) The problem is they are giving horticultural advice without horticultural science.
    Honestly, if it is possible for people to leave their leaves and still have a garden, fine! It is not possible for me and for many others. Location, location, location. Thanks for letting me harp more.

  5. Some of us walk through leaves from a different summer…I’m still not picking up my leaves…Maybe it has to do with the kind of leaf (pecans, crape myrtles, etc.) and the type of climate (hot & humid with an annual rainfall of around 46″ most of the time)…but my leaves usually disappear into the soil sometime around the start of spring. I don’t care what my neighbors think. I don’t care what the experts say. I don’t even like my lawn, but it seems to thrive despite me. Oh, and I step in the occasional dog bomb regardless of whether there are leaves or not. All of it–lawn & garden–look okay in the end.

  6. I’ve left the oak leaves from our neighbour’s yard covering my partly shaded back garden. Reason? To provide a “pee” buffer for when my dog does her business over them. During growing season I have low fencing keeping her out but I remove those before the snow flies so she doesn’t get impaled! I’ll be out there when the soil has just thawed in the spring to remove them (the snowdrops will have to be sacrificed…boo hoo…from raking and being covered) but it is the only way I can think of to protect the garden. The other point is the type of leaf: oak leaves take a huge amount of time to break down, Norway maple leaves are notorious for creating a soggy mat, and honeylocust leaves (leaflets) are pretty benign. There is no easy solution sometimes — gardening is work!

  7. Yes, as you and others have alluded and commented…it all depends. It depends on what part of your garden you’re talking about and the plants you’re considering. For example, I rake the leaves off the grass and into the woods. The leaves that land (or are blown) into my perennial beds remain until spring. Some are raked off; some decompose. By the time I rake them off in the spring, many of the insects have emerged…or if not, I have the luxury of raking those insect-harboring leaves, again, into the woods behind my house. Many others do not have a convenient place/property for transporting leaves: I get it. But this system works for me and my plants. We all have different philosophies, expertise, desires, types of plants, years of experience, etc. Elders, mentors, friends, and our instincts guide us and continue to teach us. And science, in all its forms, continues to guide new knowledge. Thanks for this post for continuing the conversation.

  8. I leave the leaves in areas right next to the sidewalk, where street salt and other nasty stuff accumulates over the winter. Come spring, I can peel off this layer without subjecting the beds to harm from the salt or the leaves. Works for me.

  9. Have wanted a leaf shredder for leaves amongst plants for decades. A weedeater type thing, with a baffle on top of the string, perhaps 6″ diameter. Told the world, specific people, now here, someone…..please !

    Moved from my 30 year garden 3 years ago. It had been on TV, in books, magazines, whatever, that was then. Now, in a ca. 1900 home, and ‘older’, knew I would not have a cottage garden. Want a garden to see me thru my 80’s. Drought, deer, armadillo huge trinity to landscape design against. And century old pecan trees, their leaves.

    Mainly using trees, hedges, groundcovers, boring choices individually, excepting their fight against the drought/deer/armadillo trinity.

    Of course I’ll have a fern glade, a hellebore hill, daffodil meadow, you get the idea, simple, and planted closer than tags/books recommend. From year 1, I can blow leaves away, or unskilled labor can do it….on those groundcover patches….won’t even need my leaf shredder invention, which doesn’t exist beyond my imagination.

    This is year 3, and still grading, removing invasives, renovating sheds, house…..getting to groundcover patches will be a LIFE ACHIEVEMENT !!

    Love leaf litter mulch. Love. Yet, even something so ‘simple’ has a few guidelines. You’ve lovingly handled leaf litter mulch !!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  10. Thank you and well said. I wrote my own blog post on this very topic a couple weeks ago, frustrated that the bad advice keeps recirculating every year. If we all keep writing maybe we’ll eventually drown out the misinformation.

  11. I practice a mix. I am surrounded I the front yard by Silver maples, including my own. Any leaves that fall in beds, are left there, and raked out in early spring. And yes, they do mat down, at least in the shade- but so do all my hosts. Lawn is kept mostly free of leaves as soon as I can get to them. I’m not retired, after all! In suburbia I do think you owe something to you neighbors to clean you yard often enough not to block the drains or to have you lawn leaves become you neighbors problem more than ma nature provides. Otherwise, to each their own.

  12. I’m not sure in which part of the country you live, but in south Richmond the Norway maple is considered an invasive.

  13. To say that leaving the leaves is “science free” is not correct. There are many studies validating that when left in place, leaf cover provides habitat for overwintering beneficial insects, many species of native bees (including bumbles), native ladybugs, butterflies, moths, predatory beetles, fireflies, and many, many more. Not to mention the habitat it creates for the decomposer insects that help sustain insectivorous birds through the winter. These creatures don’t just overwinter in the standing plant stems she leaves behind. They need the leaf litter. As a professional horticulturist, I understand Elizabeth’s “plants only” view of the possible negative effects of leaving leaves sit in garden beds, but we have to stop looking at our gardens as “plants only” places. They are functioning ecosystems where a diversity of life should be encouraged, not just plants. I have left the leaves in my perennial and shrub beds all winter long for the past 5 years with no ill effects. I do use a mulching mower to get them off the lawn as matted leaves will definitely kill patches of turf. Nobody is saying to NOT clean up your garden at all; they’re just asking folks to hold off on their garden clean up until spring, when the temperatures are regularly in the 50s and overwintering insects have come out of diapause. Then do your leaf clean up. This is not about people and plants; it’s about understanding the much-needed habitat our gardens are becoming as wild spaces disappear.

    • As I mentioned on Facebook, we are a gardening blog and much of the NWF advice–which is much more simplistic and less reasonable than Jessica suggests–is simply bad gardening advice. We all find our own ways to nurture wildlife and the ways must suit where we garden. For example, piles of leaf litter would very likely shelter rats and not much else where I am. Not a trade-off I’m comfortable with if I’m also smothering plants. Not all gardens are created equal and this non-horticultural “leave the leaves” advice has been very “one size fits all.”

    • This is basically what I do, Jessica. I live in Provence, France, where it is hot and dry. I have oaks and pines and olives, and the oak leaves are precious, as the ones I do pick up go into a composting area for a year and turn into wonderful mulch. The soil is very alkaline here, and most plants enjoy a bit of acidity added. I don’t try to grow plants that are not adapted, unless they are in a pot. There is no lawn, there is a dry garden which does not get watered, and some raised stone planters that contain sturdy plants (sages, roses, iris, gaura, gaillardia, coreopsis, teucrium, achillea, coneflower, etc.) and are watered deeply once a month in summer. So most leaves are left as they post no problems of keeping things too wet, this is a dry place!
      bonnie

  14. Agreed, Elizabeth. Here in western NY, the leaves usually have a ton of snow weighing them down for months. When spring comes, they’re stuck together like glue and are a mess to try to get rid of. And speaking only for myself, I’ve discovered that the dreaded lily-leaf beetle overwinters in great numbers in the litter, which is reason enough to do a thorough cleanup – especially leaves!

  15. Just came in from raking leaves to find this post and discussion.
    And what about mice and NON-beneficial insects —ticks and tick larvae — overwintering in leaf litter? No one ever addresses that. That is something I definitely do not want.
    I clear away most leaves on my half-acre Long Island, NY property. It’s former oak woods and I have no lawn – hence no lawnmower for leaf shredding. I rake most leaves out of the perennial beds, leave most leaves in the still semi-wooded areas. Oak leaves, as has been mentioned, mat down and don’t decompose for years.
    My compromise is raking the leaves I want removed into large piles and then having them picked up and trucked to the local dump where the town composts them. It costs $500 (there are a LOT of leaves) and it’s something I have to budget for every year, but it’s worth it to me.
    Agree there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this annual dilemma.

  16. I am not familiar with the NWF’s piece but I can offer the #leavetheleaves campaign from Xerces is more nuanced and addresses several of the issues in your rant.

    Our invertebrate populations are facing dramatic declines and serious threats like habitat destruction. I believe that gardeners should be leading the discussion on providing habitat for them – especially if you like pollination. As far the interaction between soil and leaves, I will trust mother nature’s seasonal work and my own experiences over supposed “scientific” claims.

    So, it is disappointing to hear such a human-centric perspective especially in support of a dead zone like lawns. Lawns suck up water, encourage applications of toxic synthetic chemicals, offer almost no habitat and require weekly mowing often by fossil-fueled machinery.

    What is needed is a new campaign and gardening advice: #giveupthegrass

    • Good info from Xerces. Thanks for sharing. I don’t rake but now I won’t be shredding my leaves either. Haven’t gotten any complaints from neighbors yet. Knock on wood. Personally, I love, the look of leaves in the garden. Makes me feel like I live in the woods. I do have worries about ticks but I’ve gotten them from walking on a mowed lawn as well so I really can’t say about that.

    • @Sue,
      I unfortunately have to agree that we are witnessing a dramatic decline in invertebrate populations.
      However I’m finding it a bit extremist to call a lawn a “dead zone”. If you call lawns dead zones, what will you call parking lots?

  17. Been there, tried that, killed that.
    Nope, not going to do that again.
    I shredded the fallen oak leaves with the electric mower and left a layer on half a section of grass.
    It died . It has taken me two flippen years to fill in that section of pathetic looking lawn.
    Won’t ever make that mistake again.

  18. This is one thing that i cant stand i hate having customers leave the leaves it makes a mess for us come spring time when we have to do some landscaping! Most thing its good for the animals that live under it but then they have chance of infestation from the animals because of leaving them.

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