Garden Guide: Leave the leaves (and your yard debris too)!

Our garden expert Alex Calamia shows us how he uses dead plants to bring life to next year’s garden.

Alex Calamia

Nov 15, 2023, 11:07 AM

Updated 243 days ago


Autumn is a messy time of the year in the garden, but one season’s trash is another season’s treasure. Many gardeners are urging homeowners to “leave the leaves.” Leaves have benefits for overwintering insects and for soil health, but the same is also true for larger plant debris!
Annuals and other frost sensitive plants are brown now, but these leaves can have so many benefits. I chop up the large leaves from my tropical perennials after frost gets to them and place them in my raised vegetable beds.
The pile of yard debris will regulate soil moisture and temperature. Underneath, the soil is softer in the spring. The leaves themselves won’t break down over the wintertime so they do not add nutrients into the soil.
However, they do make the environment more favorable for the organisms that live in the soil to continue working over the colder months and these bugs and fungi release nutrients that would have otherwise been locked away.
In the spring, what is left of the leaf pile can be tossed into a less visible part of the yard to decompose, or they can be used in flower pots! Summer annuals don’t have deep roots so instead of spending money to fill the whole pot with soil, the bottom third can be filled with these leaves instead.
Also, while you’re at it, don’t cutback perennials. Not only do the dead leaves and stems protect the roots that overwinter underground, the dried seed heads on plants like Echinacea (Coneflowers) make a nutritious meal for hungry winter birds. They look beautiful in the snow too!
Our native trees produce a beautiful litter of leaves that are a natural mulch for flowerbeds. They regulate soil temperature during our cold winter months and create a barrier that helps retain moisture in the soil.
They also break down and decompose overtime, a process known as leaf litter decomposition. This natural decomposition enriches the soil with the nutrients that trees used during the growing season. As decomposition progresses, key nutrients are released into the soil, enriching it with essential elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Leaving the leaves undisturbed protects insects that are overwintering inside, including important pollinators like bees and butterflies. These bugs aren’t only beneficial for our plants, but they’re also a good spice for so many animals. The presence of a diverse ecosystem will limit the risk that one problem bug (like mosquitoes!) will have the chance to take over.
Doing less yard work in Autumn is a more environmentally friendly approach to gardening. Not only does it save you time and effort, but it also helps create a healthier environment for plants, insects, and other creatures. Embrace the beauty and benefits of the brown landscape now, and enjoy all the green this spring!

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