By Laura & Hal Mahan
“Though neatness may be a virtue, too much neatness in a garden is a vice.”
~ Rick Darke, The Living Landscape
Some of us remember leaf-raking season as kids—that time of year when we raked the fallen leaves into huge piles and gleefully flung ourselves into them. Our parents worked hard for the pristine lawn look: carpets of turf, punctuated by neatly trimmed shrubbery. Fallen leaves left too long were a sign of messiness and were to be avoided.
Now, admit it. Isn’t leaf raking in the fall one of your least favorite chores? Get over it and leave them where they are! The truth is that leaving the leaves where they fall is actually an excellent act of environmental stewardship.
We are not saying that you need to put away the rake entirely. Of course you want to keep driveways and sidewalks clear, and perhaps rake a portion of your grassy lawn. A healthier approach would be to consider areas of your yard where you leave some of the fallen leaves, creating a more natural forest environment and giving your soil some added natural nutrition. You might use the rule, “what falls under the tree, stays under the tree.”
In a forest, fallen leaves are the first step of recycling a tree’s biomass back into the soil. As soon as soil microbes and fungi get to them, they will begin to break down. Chop them up with your mower to speed up the process. And avoid using pesticides and fertilizers that interrupt these natural processes.
Have you ever thought about what goes on right at the surface of the soil and in the first few inches below? It can be fascinating and is one of the most important places in the entire ecosystem. What stuff is there? Leaves, seed pods, spent flowers, twigs, small pieces of bark. This so-called “litter” is essential in retaining moisture, recycling nutrients and creating microhabitats for small living things at the base of the food chain. Many kinds of insects and other invertebrates spend their lives here and provide food for larger invertebrates, and we could go up the chain from there to small mammals, and then to larger mammals. Even our largest mammal, the black bear, might find one of its favorite foods, insect larvae, in this layer of life near the soil surface.
You can do your own bio-blitz inventory of the small critters that inhabit this zone by making a simple contraption called a Berlese funnel. Named after an Italian entomologist from the 1880s, the device consists of a funnel sitting on top of a jar of water or alcohol, with a light source over the funnel to provide some heat. Throw some leaf litter and loose soil in the funnel and turn on the light. The organisms in the funnel will move away from the light/heat source, travel down the funnel’s tube and drop into the liquid in the jar. Then, with a simple magnifier or stereo microscope you can examine the fascinating critters that you didn’t even know were there.
Knowing about the life that fallen leaves harbor will make you feel less guilty about putting away that rake and noisy leaf blower.
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.