In my yard, the maple leaves have already fallen. But the brown oak leaves will stubbornly hang on for a few more weeks. By late November, nearly all of our deciduous trees will be bare and skeletal. The last of the season’s color will have faded away, a testament to the passage of time and the onset of another Maine winter.
So what does one do with all of the leaves that have already fallen? Let’s start by instead listing what you should avoid doing. From an environmental perspective, bagging up leaves and putting them out for the trash is your worst option. Entombed in plastic bags, discarded leaves take up unnecessary space in landfills. As they break down, these leaves also produce methane, a greenhouse gas. Other less than ideal options include burning your leaves or allowing them to clog storm drains.
The best option for wildlife is to simply leave fallen leaves where they are. By doing so, you’ll be providing cover for the whole host of invertebrates that live under leaf litter. These small creatures provide food for birds and other wildlife. Leaving the leaves will also provide a free, natural mulch that enriches the plants in your garden.
However, leaving all of your leaves untended is problematic for a couple of reasons. Your yard may appear overly messy or neglected. And while that poses no issues for wildlife, the state of your yard may invite skepticism from those who don’t understand or appreciate what you’re attempting to do.
Another problem with leaving all of your leaves is the creation of tick habitat. This is a serious concern, as no one wants to increase the number of ticks near their home. Tick-borne diseases are a major health hazard. At this point, we all know someone who has suffered from Lyme Disease. So again, the question remains: What do we do with our fallen leaves?
To balance aesthetic and environmental concerns, I recommend cleaning up your yard, but leaving fallen leaves under shrubs and in gardens. Another option is to compost your leaves along with kitchen scraps. Raking them into the woods is another possibility. By leaving some of your leaves in situ, you will be providing wildlife habitat without earning the ire of your neighbors in the process.
Finally, another way to help wildlife is to create a brush or log pile in a corner of your yard. These constructed shelters don’t need to be more than a heap of sticks, branches, and tree limbs. By creating these piles, you will be providing cover and hiding spots for wildlife while also offering foraging sites for birds. Over time, the pile will decompose and another one can be started somewhere else.
When it comes to helping the wildlife in your backyard, do what you can as time and space allow. Every small action helps make the world a little friendlier to the amphibians, reptiles, insects, mammals, and birds that inhabit the green spaces between our homes and streets.