Earth Matters: Leave your leaves

The Island Now

Aaaah, fall, the sweet smell of leaf blowers wafts through the air. I inhale tiny particles of all sorts of pollutants in the dust cloud created by the blowing and am rattled by the seemingly endless drilling noise of the leaf blower. Inhalation of these particulates is linked to mortality, hospital admissions, respiratory symptoms, illness and changes in lung function.

The noise may be damaging my hearing and certainly interferes with communication, rest, productivity and performance and causes other psychological and physiological changes associated with poor health.

Though the colors on the trees as they prepare for winter have been notable this year, I am distracted from appreciating the beauty around me by the noise of the leaf blowers and attempts to dodge the swirls of dust being blown in my face.

If you are someone who employs the use of a leaf blower to “clean” your yard of this vital resource, I urge you to keep reading.

Leaving the leaves is a philosophy that acknowledges the important place leaves have in our ecosystem. Perhaps you think the leaves will pile up higher and higher preventing you from getting out your door, but fear not.

Nature is well equipped to manage the leaves that are falling and depends on this organic matter to feed and protect all manner of living things, including the plants in your yard you so carefully cultivate and maintain.

First, the wildlife – many species including salamanders, chipmunks, wood frogs, box turtles toads, shrews, earthworms, millipedes and thousands of insect species live in this leaf layer. While all these species are not found on Long Island, many are. And they are part of the web of life that helps us live.

Consider the butterfly and moth species that overwinter in the leaf layer. Many are pollinators ensuring that your garden will grow and that we can grow food to eat. Others provide food to many of our backyard birds, which rely on butterfly and moth caterpillars to feed their babies during nesting season.

Some bats couldn’t survive without a leaf layer to overwinter in. They find protection from severe cold temperatures in the piles of leaves.

Second, your garden – fallen leaves provide a natural mulch for your lawn and garden. When spread around your garden, shrubs and trees, the leaves suppress unwanted plants that compete with the plants you are encouraging.

The leaves also provide nutritious fertilizer for the soil. A wide array of microorganisms digest the leaves returning them as nutrients in the soil that will feed the plants growing there.

Skip spending your money on commercially available fertilizer and partner with Mother Nature; let the leaves complete their purpose by decomposing on the ground and providing fertilizer to the soil and plants growing there for free.

The leaves left on the ground will also preserve moisture in your yard and garden, further reducing your costs by decreasing the need to water. If you are concerned about leaves blowing away, you can help keep them where you want them by shredding them.

You can shred leaves manually with a hedge clippers or run a lawnmower over them. While this will eliminate the leaves as a habitat, it will at least allow them to restore needed nutrients to the soil and keep them out of a landfill.

Most definitely do not put your leaves in the trash. They will end up in a landfill where they will break down and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Compost your leaves at home or through the municipality.

Bag them in paper leaf collection bags and leave them for collection on the yard waste collection day in your neighborhood.

Bagging and disposing of your leaves through a municipal compost program is the choice of last resort if you can’t compost them at home or use them to feed your garden or leave them to provide habitat for wildlife and insects.

Though composting and mulching do not leave the leaves for the benefit of the insects and wildlife, at least you’ll be returning the leaves to the ground as compost or mulch to support and feed another cycle of plants.

And maybe next fall, instead of bobbing and weaving as I walk outside trying to avoid the dust clouds from the leaf blowers and crossing to the other side of the street as I attempt to mitigate the damage to my ears from the relentless buzzing of the leaf blowers, I’ll be able to enjoy the beautiful colors around me and the crisp fall air knowing the world around me is alive and that much healthier.

TAGGED: Lynn Capuano
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