October 13, 2016

Leaving Leaves Where They Lie

Last year, my in-laws came to take care of my daughter while my husband and I went away for a few days. These people: saints. So, it was autumn, and my father-in-law, who enjoys a good sci-fi rerun with the best of them, decided to forgo a lazy afternoon of rerunning it up, and instead unearthed our green waste bags from the back of the garage and raked our entire lawn and garden. The whole thing. 85 million bags of leaves, branches, and detritus. It probably took him three days.

We got home, jet lagged and half awake. I stepped out of the car, took one look at the garden and my heart plummeted. Sure, it looked amazing. First rate garden tidiness. Our garden had never EVER looked that perfect in the autumn. I was touched that he worked so hard, especially knowing that it wasn’t his garden, and it probably meant he missed that episode of Star Trek where Kirk bagged that alien babe. But the truth is, I was so, soooo sad. You see, we don’t clean up our garden in the autumn. In fact, we relish in the leaves that practically bury our yard. My husband mows them until they look like autumnal confetti: shades of rust, gold, and ochre. We leave all our tall, billowy grasses, and pokey, browned seed heads standing at attention all winter. We let berries freeze on the cane, grapes dry out on the vine. Hostas bow prostrate and ferns curl under. We leave them to slumber all winter for a few important reasons.

Leaving leaves for our wildlife friends

I want to make sure that the wildlife in my neighborhood have adequate means for survival. No, this doesn’t mean I’m going to invite local squirrels in and offer them our guest room. But, because every part of our ecosystem is important and needs to remain balanced, I try to help them out where I can. For birds, it means putting out feeders and water in the winter. Easy right? But you know what’s even easier? Leaving those leaves! Animals and birds need three things to survive: access to food, water, and shelter. In the winter, all of these things are in short supply. It’s hard to believe, but there are many species of wildlife that make little shelters in your leaves (think toads, mice, and even birds!). And a cool fact: butterfly larvae start in your fallen leaves. Leaving your leaves isn’t just for animal lovers: if you want a healthy, balanced garden, taking care of those wildlife critters is a great way to ensure that! They are key parts of the food web, after all!

Oh, and you can leave those perennials, too!

Besides refusing to rake my yard, I also leave those perennials, exhausted fruit vines, and tall grasses alone. Sure, it looks beautiful when the skeletons of former garden glory are dressed in winter’s blanket, but it’s not for epic photo shoots alone. For many ecological reasons, animals aren’t hibernating like they used to and some species of birds seem to have forgotten that they’re supposed to fly south. Last winter the crabapple trees in my neighbourhood were teeming with robins in February. February!! By waiting to cut down those perennials and grasses until spring, you are providing necessary shelter and food for birds and small wildlife. It’s such a simple thing that makes a huge impact. I’ve watched birds playing in the tall grasses in the dead of winter and chipmunks yanking old seeds out of frost-hardened sunflower seed heads.

Leaving leaves for great soil

In order to have a successful garden, every gardener worth his or her weight in plants will tell you this: good soil is essential for a good garden. Making sure your soil is amended with adequate amounts of compost is a great way to encourage plant development. Leaves are a fantastic (and free) compost. By leaving the leaves where they fall, you allow those leaves to slowly break down over the winter, feeding their nutrients to both the soil and the soil’s inhabitants. It’s always a good idea to keep those tiny soil dwellers happy: they are the ones that will keep your plants healthy and pest-free come spring. Did you know that soil has its own ecosystem? There are probably millions of bugs, and various forms of life (think little microbes) living in your soil. That’s the hope anyway. Letting your plants and leaves blanket the exposed soil all winter is a great way to both feed and protect that minuscule ecosystem.

Also, leaving a layer of leaves on your garden is a great way to suppress weeds. It’s like leaving a big thick pile of mulch on your garden, which actually saves you work come spring. Winning!

So go ahead, stow that rake for the winter and let the leaves fall where they may!

Happy not-raking!


  1. Selena Bruni Eprile - 2 years ago

    All of this! We have a suburban yard as well, in the winter it looks like a disney classic is filming on location. We have so many visitors that leave their tiny footprints in the snow like a little thank you letter for thinking of them.Not to mention how darn cute and entertaining it is to watch them:)

    • Jen - 2 years ago

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Selena! Hooray for tiny footprints!!

  2. Kellie - 2 years ago

    Jen, I love your post and you probably already know that we do the exact same thing. It’s what makes the garden a 365 day of year place of wonder.
    I feel the tension though with your father-in-law’s act of kindness vs that sinking stomach feeling you had. Have you heard of love languages? I can think of so many wise cracks right now…ha,ha.
    Kellie from Princess & The Yard Ape

    • Jen - 2 years ago

      Thanks, Kellie. It’s funny though that so many people think a tidy yard is a healthy one. When I walk down the street, I literally feel like yelling: hey, you over there! Stop raking! Maybe I should start doing that… 😉

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