PHILADELPHIA PA – To some home owners, autumn leaves on the lawn seem like an unsightly nuisance. They’re inclined to bag them up and haul them away. Experts, however, say leaves play an important role in the environment. They hope to encourage lawn lovers to leave those leaves alone.
A new survey from the National Wildlife Federation reveals most people know that layers of leaves provide a home to moths and insects, on which birds feed to survive. That makes trees and their leafy by-products an essential part of the environment, according to Tim Ifill, director of trees for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the federation, agrees. Pennsylvanians can share their space with a wealth of wildlife, he said, if they leave some leaves to give them some habitat.
The federation survey shows more than 70 percent of people acknowledge that fallen leaves and leaf layers are beneficial to wildlife, soil health, and biodiversity. Only 25 percent, though, keeps leaves on the lawn.
Ifill explained that trees are part of nature’s nutrient cycle. Their leaves drop to the ground, “slowly decompose, return nutrients to the soil, and then the tree roots take up those nutrients and use them to grow,” he said.
“The basis of that food chain, in many cases, is this great insect life,” Ifill continued. Insects “need that leaf litter to reproduce every year and to overwinter.” Removing it disrupts “the food chain that every other beneficial animal is going to need to survive.”
For those who want to help nature, but want a less leafy mess on their lawns, what’s the answer?
Ifill said he runs over leaves with a mower, which helps add organic matter to the lawn. Chopping up and using leaves as a form of mulch also offers the benefit of moisture absorption, in a way that is friendly to the local ecosystem.
Also, Mizejewski added, lawns need to breathe. Leaving them totally covered with a several inches of leaves may be too much. Consider chopping them up and using them to mulch gardens and plant beds.
Don’t want to be part of the nutrient solution at home? That’s OK, but remember that in many Montgomery, Berks, and Chester County municipalities, leaves cannot be disposed of as trash or deposited in landfills. They must be placed in compostable bags, and hauled or delivered to a composting center.
Pennsylvania is one of 17 states nationally that has implemented a statewide ban on depositing leaf and yard debris at landfills, the U.S. Composting Council reports.
Those rules make sense, Mizejewski believes. Nationally, the federation survey concludes, around 14 percent of people toss 10 or more leaf bags into the trash per year. “Bagging (leaves) up and sending them to the landfill actually is a really bad thing,” he noted. “It contributes some nasty greenhouse gases to the atmosphere that are a piece of climate change.”
Home owners can help the environment and ecosystem even more, Ifill reported, by putting native plants in their yards and gardens. They also can support wildlife.