Danielle Smith, Producer
Tuesday, October 10, 2023
Fall leaves on the lawn might seem like a nuisance, but they actually play an important role for the environment. A new survey from the National Wildlife Federation reveals most people know that leaf layers provide a home to moths and insects, which birds need to survive – and yet, they continue to bag them up and send them to a landfill.
Tim Ifill, director of trees, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, explained trees are an essential part of the environment.
“They’re these living things that are used to this nutrient cycle where, you know – in a forest setting, you can imagine – they drop their leaves on the ground, those leaves slowly decompose, return nutrients to the soil, and then the tree roots will take up those nutrients and use them to grow,” he said.
The “Leave the Leaves” survey found more than 70% of people know that fallen leaves and leaf layers are beneficial to wildlife, soil health and biodiversity. But only one in four keeps their leaves on the lawn.
Instead of buying mulch for landscaping, Ifill said he runs over the leaves with a mower, which helps add organic matter to the lawn, and explained chopping up and using leaves also offers the benefit of moisture absorption, in a way that is friendly to the local ecosystem.
“The basis of that food chain, in many cases, is this great insect life,” Ifill continued. “And they need that leaf litter to reproduce every year and to overwinter. And if we take that away from them, then they’re not going to have any places to overwinter. And we’re not going to have that basis of the food chain that every other beneficial animal is going to need to survive.”
Ifill said another important part of the ecosystem is for people to put native plants in their yards and gardens, which also helps support wildlife.
David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, said the lawn still needs to breathe, so leaving it totally covered with a few inches of leaves is too much. It is better to chop them up, and added putting leaves in bags for disposal is not a good idea.
“Bagging them up and sending them to the landfill actually is a really bad thing,” he explained. “It really contributes some really nasty greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that are a piece of climate change.”
The survey notes around 14% of people toss ten or more bags of leaves into the trash per year. Mizejewski said Pennsylvanians can share their space with a wealth of wildlife if they “leave some leaves” and give them some habitat.
Disclosure: National Wildlife Federation contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Energy Policy, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.