Leave them be

A few weeks ago, I looked out my window and saw red, yellow and brown leaves swirling slowly in the wind as they dropped from trees to my front yard. The annual fall foliage always reminds me of a lovely book by Leo Buscaglia called “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf.”

The book is about letting go and accepting change.

It’s been just a week or so since I watched those colorful leaves fall gently to the ground and now my yard looks completely different. There is not an inch of grass peeking through the blanket of fallen foliage.

This led me to start thinking about the rake and having to go to the supermarket to get those brown paper bags to stuff the leaves into.

Each year hundreds of these bags line up like giant thumbs along everyone’s curbside, waiting to be picked up by the town and carted off in trucks.

But this year, I took a page out of Buscaglia’s book and decided to let go. Let go, that is, of the concept that you must frantically rake leaves each autumn to clean up the yard before the first snowfall.

There’s actually plenty of good reasons not to do that.

I’d cop to being lazy and not wanting to rake as one reason but it’s great exercise, so that’s not it. What did sway me is that there are better reasons not to rake, such as protecting pollinators, converting leaves to composting, energizing soil for next year’s growing season and eliminating waste.

About 10 million tons of yard trimmings, which includes leaves, ended up in landfills in 2015, representing about 8 percent of all waste there, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency reported by USA Today.

Why fill up landfills when there’s better uses for leaves?

Leaves provide habitat for a whole mini ecosystem of wildlife and insects, especially pollinators who hibernate in the winter. A cover of leaves provides shelter for bumblebees, queens and larvae of butterflies and moths as well as earthworms and lady beetles. Snails, spiders, box turtles and chipmunks also shelter in leaves. Wooly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into leaf cover for protection from cold temperatures and from predators and some types of moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalis as dried leaves.

(You can use leaves to create a small habitat by building a doom shaped shelter with logs and branches and then laying a bed of leaves inside it.)

Leaves contain between 50-80 percent of the nutrients of plant extracts from the soil and air, so using them for ground cover, mulch and composting is earth friendly.

A thin layer of leaves can provide cover for lawns over the winter to keep soil moist. A thick layer of leaves can be tilled into heavy clayish soil to aerate it and help with drainage. If you live in an area with light sandy soil, leaves can help the soil hold water and nutrients.

Mulching leaves with a lawnmower can provide nutrient-rich cover for flower beds, vegetable gardens and areas around trees and shrubs. Mulch helps prevent weeds and soil erosion and helps retain moisture. You can use leaves as compost as well if you add nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings.

It is important to clear leaves from drainage areas in your environs and to clear them if you live in high-risk wildfire areas.

But otherwise do feel free this year to skip the noisy, fossil-fuel reliant leaf blowers, put the rakes aside and leave the leaves for cover, compost and mulch.

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions at Hearst and The Hartford Courant and contributing writer for The New York Times.