By Scott Smith, Communications Director
As an avid gardener and backyard composter here in southern New England, fall has long been my favorite time of year. Most seasons I can hardly wait to begin the annual cleanup of leaves from the lawn and the clearing of withered plants and spent vines from the flower beds and vegetable garden. Aside from being seen as a conscientious neighbor, the fact that these autumnal offerings are destined for the compost pile I keep in the back corner of the yard makes me feel all the better about being so industrious.
Not this year. As it happens, a minor but necessary medical procedure has my right hand in a cast and me temporarily unable to wield a rake, fire up the lawn mower or use the garden shears.
Instead, I’ve spent the fall marveling at the bounty of wildlife that is busy taking advantage of my laziness. For the past week I’ve watched from the back window as a pair of cardinals—a bright red male and his dusky mate—have staked their claim to the sunflower plants I’ve left standing in the garden. They perch on top of the big drooping blooms to pluck at the seeds. Most years, I’ve already chopped down the thick stems to use as tent poles for the nascent compost pile. The hollow stems rot away, leaving columns of airy passageways that breathe life into the rotting matrix of gathered leaves, grass clippings, and food waste from the kitchen.
Not this year, or at least not yet. Joining the beaky cardinals in the garden are a pair of finches, who flit between picking up sunflower seeds cast to the ground and plucking thistles from the purple coneflowers I have yet to deadhead. The past few mornings, two blue jays have gotten in on the act and try to bully the cardinals from their perch atop the sunflowers.
I’ve also left alone the tall, spiky cleome that self-seed each year in the flower beds that border the fenced-in vegetable garden beside the back patio. Though they’re native to South America, I prize these plants for their profuse flowers (as do the bees all summer long) and for their banana-shaped pods that produce an amazing number of small black poppy-like seeds, to which the doves that flock to my backyard seem addicted. I can hardly go outside the back door without a dove or three taking flight from flagstone pathway that borders the flower beds.
I’m not alone in my newfound affinity for leaving the leaves where they are and flower stalks standing. In key respects, it’s the flip side of the No Mow May movement that has inspired me and many other homeowners to let the grass grow and springtime weeds like clover, dandelions and wild violets to flower and provide a feast of nectar for emerging pollinators.
The “leave things for the bees” trend is also in part a backlash to what’s become the bane of leaf-peeping season: Noisy, noxious leaf blowers. Not only do the infernal machines emit an appalling amount of toxic fumes, “When you’re using leaf blowers, you’re blowing away all the life in your lawn — any firefly or beetle or spider,” says biologist Jason Munshi-South.
The trees that ring my small suburban corner lot in Westport, CT, are mostly oak, sycamore and maple—the species identified by Houston Wilderness as native “super trees,” which perform best at soaking up pollutants, providing flood mitigation and reducing heat on the ground. (The nonprofit has planted 15,000 trees on both public and private property in strategically placed groves as part of an effort to boost “tree equity” in neglected neighborhoods as well as to aid water absorption and carbon sequestration.)
I’m most proud of the acorn-laden oaks, among them white, black and red, as they harbor more life-forms than any other North American tree, including hundreds of kinds of caterpillars, according to Douglas W. Tallamy, author of The Nature of Oaks and proponent of turning backyards into what he terms homegrown national parks. “A yard without oaks is a yard meeting only a fraction of its life-support potential.”
Providing a feast of fallen nuts for the squirrels and chipmunks are a white pine, walnut, and hickory; the robins gorge themselves on the pretty red berries of the dogwoods in the understory before most can even hit the ground. The multi-hued leaves of all these trees look just as pretty splayed flat across the lawn as they did aloft.
The science behind leaving the leaves
The science in support of delaying or even avoiding a fall yard cleanup altogether is clear. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “The vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult. In all but the warmest climates, these butterflies use leaf litter for winter cover.”
“Beyond butterflies, bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements,” Xerces advises. “There are so many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites, and more—that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that rely on these insects for food.”
In addition to aiding biodiversity, a hand’s-off approach to fall yard duties also provides important benefits to improving soil health and offsetting the climate crisis. “Leaves help nourish the garden as they feed an entire ecosystem of decomposers. From fungi, bacteria and tiny, invisible soil creatures to earthworms and roly-poly bugs, which help break down and metabolize organic material so that nutrients are released into the soil,” says Per Gundersen, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Copenhagen.
Gundersen has calculated that by leaving garden waste alone, his fellow Danes could store 600,000 tons of CO2 a year. “When garden waste is burned or composted by municipal waste schemes, CO2 is returned to the atmosphere very quickly. By keeping waste in the garden, the decomposition process is significantly slower. In practice, this means that one builds up a larger and larger storage of CO2 in the garden in the form of twigs, dead branches and leaves that are left to decompose,” says Professor Gundersen.
The beauty of letting go
There’s still plenty to do in my yard as the growing season gives way to winter slumber. I’ve collected bags of cottony milkweed seeds from the backyard to spread far and wide, starting with the pollinator patch I created two summers ago by removing a swath of lawn in the front yard. I’ll tuck some seeds into the decaying wood chips I use as cover when I transplant some black-eyed susans that have grown too crowded elsewhere. Nor will I ignore my trusty old compost heap, which I’ll stuff first with leaves scraped from the street and, in time, with a final mow of the lawn, making sure to leave a layer of mulched leaves to disintegrate back into the grass.
“Our gardens can contribute to both the climate and biodiversity crisis by harnessing more garden waste,” says Professor Gundersen. “I also think that it will lead to a little less gardening in the long run. And then it’s more fun, because there will be a greater abundance of life around the garden. We just need to dare to let go of control and make more room for nature.”
Less work and more fun? And more wildlife in my more natural garden? I’m down with that.
One thing I won’t be lazy about this fall: I’ll be sure to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 8, and with my good hand I’ll pull the lever for the candidates whose views on combatting the climate crisis, boosting biodiversity and protecting the environment align with my own.