Wildlife boosters: Leave the leaves alone

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Tired of raking, blowing and bagging leaves every fall weekend just to keep up with the neighbors?

The National Wildlife Federation has some advice: Put down the rake, turn off the blower and relax.

The Reston, Virginia-based organization says it’s better for the environment to let leaves lie, for the sake of nature.

Raking the yard robs lawns and gardens of nutrients and destroys habitat for animals, the conservation group argues.

“Salamanders, frogs and toads and a lot of other animals rely on leaf litter as their primary habitat,” said David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. “As a group, these are animals that are actually on the decline worldwide.”

Amphibians are particularly susceptible to the loss of habitat. Their moist skin needs the protection of leaves and foliage to prevent drying out under the sun’s rays.

When homeowners choose to rake their lawns, placing the leaves in bags or moving them to the curb, they are destroying that cover. Butterflies and moths also make use of the leaves, leaving their pupa behind during winter months, Mizejewski said.

And if that’s not reason enough to let your lawn be in favor of the football game, then think of the soil.

Decomposing leaves are a natural mulch, one the federation argues “suppresses weeds and fertilizes the soil as it breaks down.” Mizejeski said leaving those leaves in place can help homeowners save money in the spring on fertilizers.

Not everyone thinks leaving what falls on the ground in place is the best approach.

“Oh no, it so untidy,” said Dianne Gray, 72, of Sterling Heights. She’s won five city beautification awards for her lawn and pays a neighbor to mow and collect leaves.

“The wind blows them into the neighbor’s yard. At first it’s nice and pretty, but then get rid of them. Let the kids jump in them and then get rid of it.”

Rebecca Finneran, a horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension, sees mulching as the way to go. Grinding up the leaves via a mower and letting the remains stay on the ground allows for the benefits of fertilization, without the dead spots in a lawn that might occur if leaves sit in place all winter.

“You pulverize the leaves into little tiny pieces,” she said. “They sift down around the turf plants and provide nutrients ... It ends up being very beneficial to lawns.”

When leaves are allowed to sit during an extended period of time in the winter, they create problems for owners to deal with in the spring.

“They don’t kill the lawn, but they tend to smother patches of it out,” Finneran said.

Another strike against the Wildlife Fund’s recommendation: Heavy, wet leaves can clog storm drains, which can lead to backups and flooding. Many municipalities ask residents to help keep drains clear of leaves in the fall.

For more information on mulching, MSU Extension offers a variety of tips.


(313) 222-2034

News Staff Writer Christine MacDonald contributed.