Why Leave Leaves?

Fall Colors Sumac Oaks

By Sarah Wilson, MA

This is the time of year I look forward to — the cool air, the leaves turning, the sound of those leaves as Daisy and I walk through them.

Left alone, those leaves blow into drifts and piles. They settle, creating, over time, strata for life. Near the ground, the leaves mat up and stay damp, protecting the soil and the life within it from drying out. Closer to the top, the leaves are curled and crinkled, creating the perfect hiding spot for many of our Missouri moth and butterfly caterpillars to ride out the winter in their camouflaged cocoons or chrysalises. In between, all sorts of life moves: consuming, burrowing, reproducing, and generally living their lives

This makes these piles avian 7-Elevens, where birds can find food year-round. Leaves are so important for our wintering flocks that the Audubon Society urges us to leave as many as possible.

Admittedly, I am still a creature of this culture. I am not comfortable leaving leaves in my front yard (yet) but beside our house, under shrubs, along the fence, and in the back flower beds? There they can lay doing their good work.

Many of us still think our native leaves don’t look good, to which “A New Garden Ethic” author, Benjamin Vogt, suggests we “rethink pretty.” 

The first time I read those words, they stopped me. How exactly did I learn that the abundance freely given by nature was “ugly” but stuff in plastic bags from the local store was not? How did we all get convinced that raking, leaf blowing, and bagging this glorious natural mulch only to have our towns spend our tax dollars hauling it away and then using our own money to buy lesser stuff made any sense at all? It’s like throwing an organic feast out the window then ordering in fast food.

Since my goal is to support Missouri wildlife in my yard, I’m learning to see the leaves as they fall, not as work to be done, but as true manna from heaven for the thousands of local lifeforms who depend on it. And suddenly that looks beautiful to me.