Dirt Therapy: Redefining Fall Garden Maintenance with Fallen Leaves

As a kid growing up in Central California, our classic 1950s neighborhoods were designed with colorful avenue trees and distinctive large trees that would simulate an East Coast landscape. Our East Coast relatives used to laugh at us saying that California didn’t have any seasons—everything stayed green all year long. Not so, said my father after raking up piles of yellow, orange and red leaves produced by our deciduous “maple” tree—really a Liquid Amber tree. Every fall, year after year, my father, instead of bagging the leaves up to be hauled away, would pile the leaves in the garden. I’m sure our neighbors thought he was lazy, crazy or both!

These majestic deciduous trees in our landscape produced massive leaf litter, which my father learned to work with in lieu of fighting it. Instead of the traditional scraping of leaves off the lawn and gardens, bagging them and sending them to waste management, my father would gently rake the leaves and place them in the garden beds and under the trees. Little did I know as a young child that this act of “leaf” kindness was not out of laziness but provided beneficial nutrients to the plants while serving a purpose for living and nonliving things in the ecosystem. As I have learned, there is no waste in the natural world.

Unfortunately, we see leaf litter as a problem in our community, when it actually plays a rather important ecological role. Believe it or not, leaves are secretly at work in the garden and in our parks. Leaf litter produces carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other inorganic compounds as it decomposes and replenishes the soil. During the decomposing process, life is occurring in the fungus, which is comprised of tiny harmless critters that attach themselves to the plant roots, helping the roots thrive.

Leaves provide homes to a variety of living things, from bacteria to the largest macro invertebrates. Leaf mulch helps retain moisture and regulate temperature for organisms living under the leaf litter during winter—some critters use the leaves as a blanket. This is the perfect home to invertebrates; butterflies laying their eggs on the leaf litter use it as a nursery. Caterpillars often times seal themselves within the leaf as a blanket. Birds use the leaf litter to forage for worms, insects and snails. By raking up these leaves, you may be disturbing these small habitats of beneficial insects that could be fluttering around your garden next spring.

Although removing leaves is a daily occurrence in suburban and urban homes and community parks, we can make some alternative choices to not remove the leaves. We can leave the litter in the garden as mulch, allowing nature to do its part in providing a healthy ecosystem.

Here are some tips to consider:

Check with your community regarding rules for raking leaves when they fall.

  1. Gently rake leaves into larger piles.
  2. Use leaves as mulch around large trees, shrubs and garden beds.
  3. Layer leaf litter in your compost pile.
  4. Utilize leaf mold (decomposed leaves) for soil drainage and enrichment.

Your efforts will help fragile ecosystems thrive while promoting healthy soils, and the byproduct is a more spectacular spring garden.

And by depositing leaves in the garden, you’ll have more time to invest in play this fall. My dad had it right after all—father does know best.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Dirt Therapy is a regular column in the Capistrano Dispatch by GNTG's Executive Director, Marianne Taylor