By Dr. Hildur Palsdottir
Ecological literacy is the ability to understand the principles that make life on earth possible. I’m deeply concerned about the lack of ecoliteracy among us. Never before have I witnessed such a great divide between economic and ecological interests. We rely on systems that extract and exhaust natural resources. We must start looking through the lens of sustainability and insist on ecological sanity. In the spirit of falling leaves, let go of harmful habits this autumn. Let’s start with sustainable yard care.
Recently, in the Wall Street Journal there was a photo of father and son titled “Man vs Nature” showing them squashing leaves into plastic bags in Pittsfield, Mass. The caption said they proudly discard up to 55 39-gallon leaf litter bags per year. Symptomatic of the fall season here on Long Island, I regularly find rows of plastic-bagged yard waste lining my own street here in Port Washington, ready for curbside pickup like any other trash. There’s a much better way to dispose of yard waste.
The Town of North Hempstead encourages homeowners and landscapers to dispose of their organic waste responsibly. Instead of putting your leaves, plants, twigs, and grass clippings at the curb, you can leave the leaves, compost or mulch. Keep those leaves on your property where they do a whole lot of good and act as natural fertilizers and weed suppressors. If you prefer to get rid of your organic matter on designated collection days, you can dispose of yard waste in brown bins or in paper lawn and leaf bags that are available at most hardware stores. Large branches can be tied into bundles of less than 4 feet in length and 2 feet in width.
Yard waste from commercial landscapers must be brought to a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation permitted facility for processing. I have, however, witnessed professional landscapers’ plastic bag yard waste earmarked for residential collection. If you outsource yard work, please communicate with your landscaper and request that they follow our town’s guidelines.
In a recent conversation with one professional landscaper, he assured me that he knew of the paper bag option for sustainable pickup by North Hempstead. But he claimed that it was more efficient for his team to use plastic. If you witness such activity, please know it is unlawful and subject to fines.
In North Hempstead alone, thousands of tons of yard waste are removed annually and disposed of elsewhere, both in and out of state, in transport vehicles that emit greenhouse gases. Wouldn’t it be better to design neighborhood collection and compost facilities dedicated to returning organic litter locally to the ground it grew in? Sea levels are rising, land is eroding faster than ever before and we have the agency to turn things around and with regenerative methods bind the soil with deep-rooted native trees and keep the ground beneath our feet healthy and naturally nutritious.
We must stop business as usual, we must look at our natural setting with new eyes. Our view of what’s beautiful needs revisiting. Suburban development doesn’t have to be harmful to life. Our yards are habitats. It’s that simple. Who decided leaves are litter? Leaves become soil that supports life. Why would we treat our back and front yards like another room in the house? Carpet-like grass lawns leave insects with nowhere to hide. Many pollinator species are endangered.
The leaf layer is a mini-ecosystem where wildlife takes refuge. Bumblebee queens burrow just below the soil to make it through winter and many butterflies and moths overwinter as chrysalises or cocoons disguised as dried leaves. When you blow away the leaves you’re removing their winter cover. The best way to protect beneficial insects is by leaving the leaves or raking them gently to the side of your yard. If you have more leaves than you can physically fit within your flower beds, you can purchase an electronic home leaf shredder. Just know that shredding leaves will risk hurting insects that overwinter in the leaf litter.
You may wonder why you should care about insects? What do I mean by beneficial insects? There’s a web of life we’re part of and every strand in the web matters. Beneficial insects perform valued services like pollination and pest control. When we disrupt a well-balanced ecosystem, we must be ready to face the consequences that include introduction of harmful pests and pathogens. In contrast, when we cooperate with nature’s design, we are not just living in a less toxic world, but we also have an opportunity to be healthier and therefore happier.
Nature is inherently sustainable. Nothing goes to waste in nature. One species´ waste is another species food and fuel. Falling leaves return nutrients to the ground, benefitting soil health and plant life and with it support our own life. So why do we deliberately interrupt nature’s efficient recycling methods? Please join the regenerative movement today by repairing the broken carbon cycle and return leaves to the ground from where they sprouted.