We are in dire straits these days: global pandemic, changing climate, habitat loss and species extinction. It is overwhelming. Sometimes it feels as though individual action won’t make much difference with issues that span the globe.
But it’s not true! One of the easiest things homeowners, gardeners and landscapers can do to help restore the natural world requires nothing more than breaking an old habit — that of raking, blowing and cramming leaves into plastic bags and sending them to the dump.
When it comes to tidying the yard before winter, less is more. In fact, our obsessive neatness and well-meaning homeowners association rules are extremely detrimental to our wildlife, especially the insects on which many other life forms depend, contributing to the massive plummet in insect populations we’ve experienced in recent years. More than 40% are in decline and one-third are endangered.
Like them or not , insects, as E.O. Wilson said, are the “little things that run the world.” They help create the soil in which we grow our food, they pollinate our crops and flowers, they eat pests and are themselves food for birds and other wildlife.
In order to thrive, like humans, insects need a safe place to live. For eons, nature has provided habitat in the form of leaves and woody debris that regenerate each year. But in recent decades, as we have sought to protect our green grass lawns, we have raked and hauled away countless butterflies, bees and other beneficial creatures, as well as copious amounts of free fertilizer that organic matter delivers to our topsoil as it breaks down overwinter.
It is an annual ritual that must cease to exist. Fallen leaves are not litter. They are homes to caterpillars, butterfly eggs, chrysalises, cocoons and many more critters. Bumblebee queens spend the winter just below the surface of the soil. A cover of leaves helps keep them insulated from the cold weather. Our birds, amphibians, and mammals rely on the worms, beetles, spiders, snails and insects that seek shelter in a few inches of leaves left on the ground.
You can still clear your lawn of leaves, just keep them whole by raking (as opposed to shredding them with a lawn mower) and pile them in an unused part of your yard or as mulch around shrubs and trees. Have kids or pets? The time-honored tradition of frolicking and jumping in piles of autumn leaves is alive and well — and encouraged! Gardeners know that a thick layer of leaves help restore the topsoil that has been depleted by this past year’s harvest. Got extra? Maybe someone on Craigslist or Next door wants some free mulch.
As for spent flowers and shrubs, instead of pruning them to the ground and tossing them in the yard waste bin, consider the seeds free winter food for birds and small mammals — already in short supply during the cold and darker months. Bonus for humans: watching through a snowy winter window the antics of songbirds clinging to flower stalks to feed. And save the stems and stalks as homes for native bees in the coming seasons. The Xerces Society, an organization focused on invertebrate study and conservation, recommends waiting until spring to cut back stems to a variety of heights between 8 and 24 inches, to accommodate a bevy of different species.
Nationwide, leaves and other yard debris add up to 13% of solid waste in our landfills — 33 million tons. What a waste! Knott Landfill could use a break, too. Keeping leaves at home can also reduce the need for single-use plastic bags, vehicle miles traveled to the dump by car and yard waste truck and free you of time better spent enjoying this beautiful season in Bend.
Here’s to a not-so Silent Spring next year, filled with more butterflies, bees and birds!