Fallen Leaves: A Garden Opportunity?

Cooler nights, shots of bright color here and there; soon our trees will drop their leaves onto our lawns. Do we have to rake them ALL up? Let’s think about it.

What is harboring in these leaves over winter that we may want to protect? All summer, many of our native butterflies’ and moths’ caterpillars have been feeding high in the tree canopy. The caterpillars, that the birds didn’t find to feed their hungry chicks, will have pupated and drop to overwinter in the leaf litter. . . if we don’t disturb or remove them. In addition, leaving the fallen leaves allows their nutrients to be recycled by diverse forest litter organisms in the tree’s root zone and provides habitat for salamanders, chipmunks, toads, millipedes and many insect species.

How can we do this in our yards? How about creating a simple woodland garden by leaving the leaves where they fall under a tree’s canopy? Imagine a large circle around the dripline of your mature trees planted with early blooming wild ginger and native foam-flower as low ground covers pushing up through the leaf litter in spring. Clumps of ferns can provide summer interest. Most importantly, woodland native fall asters and clumping goldenrods should be added. They not only provide fall color, but the crucial fuel (nectar) that migrating monarch and painted-lady butterflies need on their way south. Next year’s bumble bee queens, called gynes, also need this late energy source to survive their hibernation until spring.

Wild ginger and foam flower groundcover

Where we haven’t created woodland gardens under our trees, we still have leaves to “process”. Shredding them into our lawns with our lawn mowers recycles these nutrients to naturally feed our lawn grass and wandering tree roots, (if you don’t think about those pupae!). That leaves the “excessive” leaves to be removed for composting. But when you think about it, if we’ve chosen to live in forested neighborhoods, should we also choose to have more woodland gardens of native species under our trees where we don’t need lawn for walking or play?

Want more plant ideas? BPRW has plant lists customized to our Burlington’s soils for sunny and partial shade (woodland) sites.

By Kate Kruesi

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