After a long, hot summer, autumn has finally arrived.
To many, this is the best time of the year: the air is getting chillier, and leaves are turning shades of yellow, orange and red. However, those who spend countless hours maintaining their lawn cannot forget that fallen leaves will soon cover the ground. Rakes come out of storage, and piling leaves becomes a weekly task. However, it is a lesser-known fact that leaves are beneficial to your backyard environment when they are left where they fall.
Leaves are natural soil builders, adding to the organic matter content of the soil when they break down. Organic matter is an essential component of soil, located on the upper layer of the ground, and is made up of decomposing plant or animal tissue. Not only does organic matter increase the water holding capacity of the soil, but this layer of the soil also provides energy for animals that live deeper in the earth, plant roots and essential chemical processes that occur to keep soil healthy. It is well known that earthworms are beneficial to soil. Fallen leaves make for an amazing source of food for these critters that keep our soil able to support life.
Additionally, leaves can help reduce the need for the use of lawn fertilizers. Phosphorus and potassium are just two examples of the elements that dead leaves can contribute to your lawn after they break down. By letting leaves decompose into the soil in your yard, you will be saving yourself time and money on fertilizer for the next season.
Another benefit of leaves is that they can provide insulation to help keep the soil in your garden beds warm for plants, beneficial insects and other wildlife. Without the presence of leaves on the soil, the ground can freeze and thaw more rapidly, which can be detrimental to plant roots and other organisms, especially if temperatures drop too quickly. Using leaves to mulch your garden beds can keep the ground at a more uniform temperature, which changes more steadily, giving living things time to adapt to the colder weather. Animals like toads, box turtles and shrews live in the leaf litter during winter months or use it as a significant source of food. These animals are all beneficial to your lawn and garden, as they eat harmful insect species. Many types of beneficial butterflies and moths also overwinter in leaf litter.
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The benefits of leaving fallen leaves on the ground extend beyond the soil in your yard. When leaves are blown onto the curb, they can wash into storm drains, releasing phosphorus into our water supplies, polluting waterways and feeding algae in lakes, ponds and streams, which can lead to a lack of oxygen availability for fish and other aquatic life. Leaves left on the side of the road can clog storm drains, leading to floods, and leaving slippery situations for bikers, drivers and even pedestrians trying to walk over them.
Leaving leaves to break down in your yard can provide great benefits for your lawn, garden and landscape, but they must be managed in the correct way. Just letting leaves pile up on the lawn can lead to grass dying. However, you can use a mulching lawn mower to chop up the leaves to break them down into smaller pieces, while maintaining the aesthetics of your lawn. To do this, while keeping the blade height at three inches, you can either switch your mower to the mulch setting or pass over the leaves multiple times to chop them into fine pieces. Do this until you can see green grass under the leaves. Making the leaves into small pieces will allow microbes to break them down more quickly, providing organic matter to the soil and releasing nutrients into the lawn. Mulch mowing is best done with dry leaves, so make sure to do this during a week with little rain. If you don’t own a lawn mower, you can ask a landscaping company to do this for you.
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If you have an exceptional amount of leaf fall, you always can put extra leaves in your garden beds or compost piles to improve soil quality, leading to a healthier, more plentiful garden next season. You can also pile leaves around the base of plants, or in pots on top of planted bulbs, to shield them from colder weather and improve their chances of surviving the winter months.
When the leaves begin to fall in the coming weeks, consider the benefits that they will bring to your landscape next season, and leave them where they fall!
To learn more, check out this Backyard Leaf Composting Fact Sheet from Rutgers Cooperative Extension at njaes.rutgers.edu/fs074/.
William Errickson is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Monmouth County. Erin Quinn is an intern for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Monmouth County.
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