I’m hoping I don’t get hate mail from this post, but I guess if I do, I’ll look at it as a new and interesting experience.
I’m not sure who started the Leave the Leaves campaign, as there are several groups out there collecting funds and trying to educate the public to their point if view. If you are in ANY sort of gardening forum on social media, I’m sure you’ve come across this discussion- sometimes even heated enough that the admins have to get involved and pry people apart.
Here’s one of the posters that was being passed around just the other day. Several members commented that they were no longer removing leaves from their yards, that they were doing their part to, “Save the pollinators!” and “Grow native!” Two mantras that are VERY popular among the gardening community right now. They were taking turns contrariamente congratulating each other on their efforts and declaring their righteousness when a man commented, “I’m not leaving my leaves. I like my yard and my grass.”
You would have thought from the responses that he’d declared he eats children and fertilizes his grass with the blood of cute puppies. They flat out attacked him. They told him he was a fool for maintaining a grass lawn, a bigger fool for cleaning up his leaves and those were some of the nicer comments.
This is now the world we live in though, where those with an unpopular opinion are bullied, belittled, shamed or even downright threatened. You’d think gardeners are peaceful people, but it can be a real passion and anything people are passionate about, they are willing to fight over.
I’m not condemning the Leave the Leaves campaign entirely. It’s based in truth, it makes some really good points and leaves can prove very beneficial in gardening. BUT (you knew it was coming) a few of the ads or information I’ve seen passed around about leaving leaves has been a bit deceptive.
I’ve seen claims that it will not harm your lawn, that it actually feeds it, because the leaves break down into soil. Let the leaves pile up in an inconspicuous area if you want to test this and see what happens to the lawn underneath. My oak leaves lock together nicely, especially when wet, forming a dense, impenetrable mat that will not allow light or air to pass through. It will suffocate and destroy any vegetation growing underneath. This is a great environment for supporting slugs, salamanders and roly polys, but not such a great environment for supporting grass or plants. Too many leaves will suffocate plants and kill a lawn, not feed it. I neglected to clean the leaves from this front bed (below) last year and I lost several of my bulbs- of the purple clover I had planted, only one came back up, the crocus did not do as well and the violets absolutely took over. The roses also have fungal issues this year, which may also be because of the heavy leaves under and around them. Leaves are a great space for fungus of all sorts to thrive.
I don’t “Leave the Leaves” here. It’s damaging to my landscape plants. it causes drainage issues, I will now have to treat roses with fungicide because of it and I really dislike using chemicals in our yard or garden.
Maybe my biggest reason for not leaving the leaves around our house is it draws insects, which is exactly what the poster above is telling folks to save. We had an infestation of brown recluse on this property when we moved in. The exterminator had to come out several times and spray and put sticky powder in the attic before we stopped seeing them in the house. If I let leaf debris sit around the house, they still come inside in the fall, looking for someplace warm to spend the winter. When we first moved, I was cleaning the garage, which was also infested with recluse and got bit on my bicep. It was painful and itched like mad around the bite; a couple days later I had a hole in my arm about a quarter inch deep where the venom ate the flesh away. Recluse normally stay hidden in walls and ceilings where you don’t ever see them (hence their name) but there was a lot of clutter in the garage and a lot of paper and boxes. They love any sort of leaves, decaying wood, paper, cardboard that they can hide in. 6 months later, I was trimming dead wood out of walnut tree in the backyard, a spider fell out of the tree and into the back of my sports bra. As soon as I moved and the bra tightened against the spider, it bit. That one felt like I’d been stung by a wasp. I had my daughter hold the bra out so the “wasp” could escape and a huge recluse fell out instead.
This time the pain wasn’t just bad, it was excruciating. I ran a fever, I felt sick and dizzy for days. I treated the wound with activated charcoal and Prid drawing salve (how I wish I’d had my dead nettle salve then!) to pull as much venom from the wound as possible. I kept it very clean, even though it hurt like hell to clean it after it opened up. In spite of no infection directly in the wound, I developed cellulitis in the surrounding tissue and had to go to the doctor for antibiotics and steroids about a week in. This bit went deep, you could have put a quarter halfway into my shoulder. It also spread to an area over the size of a half dollar. I still have a nasty scar on my shoulder blade to show for it.
All spiders love leaves, not just recluse and I’ve noticed a rise in the population of wolf spiders here since we knocked the recluse population down greatly. (thank goodness! they will kill recluse.) I spotted at least 3 recluse running for cover as I was clearing the leaves around the foundation of our house this past week. That’s 3 that ran for the yard and will hopefully go find another place to inhabit besides our siding. Which brings me to my last point.
Piles of leaves, especially wet leaves built up over time can destroy wooden house siding, even hardybacker will succumb to it if left long enough. They will also permanently stain concrete porches and patios or exposed foundation walls. As the leaves break down, the leach out tannin oils that stain brown and yellow, which is nearly impossible to remove from grey stone or concrete. Imagine leaving a sopping wet blanket on your beautiful wood kitchen table for 3 months straight. You wouldn’t do that, nor should you leave piles of wet leaves against wooden siding or decks if you don’t want the wood to rot and be destroyed.
So as with all gardening advice, I would encourage you to read into the SCIENCE behind what you’re being told to do and not just jump on the latest viral post or fad (I’m looking at YOU EPSOM SALT). Also use a little common sense, if you’re gifted in that area. Leaves aren’t doing any organic good on your hardscapes or clogging up the gutters on your house. If you live in town and the city takes leaves, find out where they take them. Many cities now haul them to a composting facility where they are broken down and sent back out as beneficial compost for lawns and gardens. As for me, I have a yard that is close to 5 acres, full of huge, mature oak trees and that’s JUST the yard. In total, we have 40 acres and another 30 that is family land of fields, woods and yard. I’ve never raked or burned leaves here. I wait for the bulk of them to fall, then run the mower one last time in November, chopping them into small pieces and blowing the bulk of them into the edges of the woods and the hay fields. Fireflies lay their eggs in those areas, the mice, turtles and all those other small creatures on the poster above like to hang out there, so THAT IS WHERE I leave the leaves. They aren’t damaging my house and drawing recluse, they are in the edges of the woods where they give all those little critters a place to hide that isn’t in my front door. If you can have undisturbed areas like that, I see no issue at all with tidying up your hardscape or chopping up the leaves to mulch trees instead of letting them lie on the lawn, where you don’t have to share your space with creeping crawling things. Regardless of what the article in Woman’s Day Magazine may be telling you is the RIGHT THING to do. (Personally I can’t trust a magazine that gives diet advice and cupcake recipes on the same cover anyway)
If you don’t have woods or an “edge” to send your leaves to, maybe chop them up and use to mulch perennial garden beds. Chopped up, they don’t form those thick, dense, air blocking mats I was talking about. Once mulched, they break down in a season into compost. I’ve also used them as a layer in my Hugelkulture beds or lasagna gardening. They are a great brown layer to fill in around larger sticks and branches. Earthworms adore a layer of chopped up leaves.
Just stop the “Leave the Leaves!” shaming folks. Everyone’s yard is different, every garden is different and there isn’t a one method fits all that works for any situation. Gardening is one of those things that is as individual as the person doing it and that’s one of the really great things about it. Suggestions are helpful, education is helpful, yelling at someone that they are horrible destroyers of the environment because they didn’t want piles of leaves around their house or haven’t cut down their Bradford Pear yet is ridiculous. We want to ENCOURAGE people to love gardening and be drawn to it, not scare them away forever because we let our passion or dedication to the latest fad override our basic human decency. There is too much of that in the world today and gardening is supposed to draw people back to nature, not make them run screaming in the other direction from angry keyboard warriors.