Take a walk through a natural wooded area this time of year. Birds that have not flown south twitter from tree tops. There is a gentle rustle in the breeze. Leaves fall to the ground to form a carpet of many hues on the woodland floor.
As temperatures plummet toward winter, this carpet blankets living soil beneath. Overwintering insects, such as bumblebees and butterfly larvae, find shelter here.
Soil microorganisms are protected so they can break down the leaves. Carbon is stored in a nutrient-rich soil. Come next spring, this healthy soil acts as a sponge, retaining moisture for thirsty plant roots. Carbon dioxide rising from the soil and nutrients are taken up by emergent, greening plants.
A natural cycle is complete.
Take a walk in your neighborhood on a clear fall day. Leaves fall from trees that were once part of a forest that houses displaced.
The peace of this stroll is often disrupted by the deafening roar of fossil fuel-powered engines, which are used to blow leaves into piles that are then carted away as yard waste. All might be neat and tidy once the job is done, but neither a leaf nor overwintering insect is left.
A natural cycle is broken. Bare soils not protected from winter’s cold become devoid of life as microorganisms in the soil cannot thrive under these conditions. Carbon is not stored in this soil lacking nutrients that would have been released from decaying leaves.
The following spring a thick layer of imported bark mulch must be deposited to retain moisture in this sterile soil. Trees and shrubs are stressed without their natural, life-sustaining leaf mulch.
Gardens that protect earth’s natural cycles are more able to withstand the effects of climate change. Leaves play an essential role in these cycles and homeowners can benefit from them by following sustainable landscaping practices.
Use a hand-powered rake wherever feasible. It’s good exercise!
Retain natural leaf litter on planting beds. Store leaves taken from lawns and pathways in a leaf pile on your property that can be used as compost or mulch to rejuvenate garden soil.
If you must contribute to the town’s yard waste pick up, bag leaves in paper bags, not plastic. Communicate with your landscaper about reducing leaf-blowing and/or sustainably storing leaves.
Wait until late winter or early spring to clean up the garden, gently raking excess leaves away, so as not to disturb overwintering insects.
Dried plant stalks and seed heads left all winter long also provide wildlife habitat and seasonal interest.
Take a stroll through your sustainable garden in springtime. As migrating warblers glean caterpillars in a verdant tree canopy, you might hear the buzz of a queen bumblebee as she emerges from cover to collect pollen from spring flowers.
Delight in the flutter of mourning cloak butterflies and spring azures as they flash their colorful wings. Each season in a garden with an unbroken natural cycle is alive with color, movement and pleasing sound.
Leave the leaves — you, your garden and the countless creatures it sustains will be grateful.
Sue Avery, a member of the Three Village Garden Club, is an accredited organic land care professional, with years of horticultural knowledge and landscape design. She is encouraging Garden Clubs to embrace the idea of creating a network of pollinator pathways across Long Island. For more information, visit her website naturesedgegardens.com/p