Learning About Leaves

Every year I learn more and more about how important leaves are for the ecosystem. We have several blogs about leaves already, (including Scott’s best management practices and my sustainable leaf-raking tips) but this information often needs updating and augmenting. The more we know, the better we can do! And that applies to us too here at Dyck Arboretum. Here are some new ideas I am implementing around the grounds to a-leave-iate our leaf problems.

My dog Rosie loves leaves, and so do I! Raking (and playing in) leaf piles was a staple activity of my childhood that I still enjoy with my family today.

Leave them when you can…

I know it is not always possible, but the easiest and best practice is leave leaves were they fall. Here at the Arboretum we let leaves freely accumulate in hedgerows, shrub borders, and garden beds, even though it might not look traditionally ‘tidy’. Many insects use leaf litter for shelter and breeding, and insects are the linchpin to our ecosystem! As E.O. Wilson said, they are the little things that run the world. Their populations are in serious decline across many species, especially the leaf-loving firefly.

Allowing leaf litter to stay undisturbed through fall and winter is an easy way to improve insect habitat. While you might be worried about all those ‘bugs’ snoozing in your landscape, don’t be. Just remember to keep the leaf layer only a few inches thick and not piled high directly up against the foundations of your home.

Fall colors on the west side of the Arboretum. Stunning, but short lived! Soon these leaves will be swirling around the sidewalks and piling up on paths.

Don’t Shred

A light sprinkling of leaves will not harm your lawn, but they can cause damage when too thick, matted, and wet over the winter, so you may have to remove them. Many folks rush to the mower and shredder for this task. We have a large mulching mower that I once happily raced across all the Arboretum lawns with.

BUT – I’ve learned now that many insects have already laid eggs or cozied up for dormancy in these leaves. So shredding likely kills all those beautiful and beneficial insects we are hoping to attract. I am attempting a 60/40 rule this year: remove the bulk of the leaves by raking, shoveling, or blowing, and only mow that last forty percent in particularly important/sensitive lawn area. For an acreage this large it is impractical to do much by hand, but I am hoping my small effort will make a positive difference for the insects that call the Arboretum home.

Thanks to volunteers we are able to rake and redistribute some leaves. Without their help, much more would have to be shred with a mower to save time.


After the wonderful workout of raking leaves, it is time to put them…where? If you have a compost pile, that’s a great start. Or layer them over your vegetable garden. Pile them under cedar trees or in weedy spots you want to smother.

Dyck Arboretum is not accepting community leaf donations this year as our leaf house is deconstructed at the moment, but many cities (including Hesston) have a free drop off leaf compost area for their citizens. For extra sustainability, skip the plastic bags and move your leaves loose with just a tarp and a truck bed. If you must use bags, don’t tie them up so they can be easily dumped and reused next year when the leaves fall again.

Our parking lots accumulate leaves quickly, and they begin to compost as they pile up in the curb. We use a grain shovel to scoop them out, rake them up, and toss them around the trees and shrubs as good mulch and fertilizer.

This time of year I see piles and piles of bagged leaves on the curbs of our neighborhoods and cities. We can certainly do better now that we know what a gold mine of habitat and nutrients these leaves really are. So get out there and jump in those leaves, spend a day in the fall sunshine, and do your part to help those “little things” keep running the world!

Leave The Leaves

Leaves are everywhere this time of year, and for good reason! Leaves have an important role in the ecosystem. Trees and the organisms living in and below them have evolved for millions of years together, working in sync to create vegetation and break it down in an efficient cycle. But most Americans don’t realize this, quickly raking the leaves away as soon as they fall on our precious lawns. Well, here are some facts that might change your mind and urge you to leave that rake in the garage!

The leaves of ‘October Glory’ maple are beautiful but my do they fall everywhere!

For the Love of Lawn

Most people rake leaves out of concern for their lawns. Rightly so, as a thick layer can damage turf grass. Leaves staying wet too long causes snow mold, and without enough airflow even grass smothering, leaving bald patches next spring. But a light layer of leaves shouldn’t be cause for alarm – remember, a few leaves here and there will feed the lawn the nutrients it needs. You may consider using a leaf blower to thin them out if they are piled too high in some areas, allowing the turf to breathe through the winter. And when you think about it, if your non-native turf grass is so fragile and takes so much special care to grow well outside it’s natural environment…*maybe the problem is the grass, not the leaves?

*Our obsession with a 1950’s American Dream Lawn (which actually harkens back to medieval castle-dwelling elitism) is a problem; its a multi-billion dollar industry that relies heavily on chemical inputs, replaces native habitat, and sucks up millions of gallons of drinkable freshwater, but produces no useful food crop. Ready to ditch that old fashioned thinking and consider downsizing your traditional lawn space? More info here, here and here on alternatives.

Oh Leaf Me a Home

Leaves are home to lots of overwintering insects. We may not notice them, but these tiny friends are there, clinging to the underside of leaves and crawling into the leaf piles that collect in garden beds. While the well known and well loved Monarch butterfly migrates, most of our native insects do not! They desperately need these natural places to hid in winter, often as an egg, chrysalis, or hibernating as an adult. Many gardeners work hard to support declining insect populations all summer, only to ruin all their hard work in the fall when they take all their leaves to the curb.

Many butterflies and moths depend on leaf litter for shelter.

Paper or Plastic

Too many folks spend their beautiful fall days bagging up leaves and sending them away. This creates a lot of plastic waste. Not only are we sending enormous amounts of plastic to the landfill, all the insects, eggs, and larvae already on those leaves will die inside the bag, never to take their place in the ecosystem! The nutrients in that foliage will not return to the soil, and instead stay trapped for hundreds of years in their plastic prison.

Free those leaves, folks! Let them decay and feed the soil microbiome. If you must haul them away, load them onto a tarp for transport, or opt for paper bags that can be composted with the leaves.

Our student employee Rachel shows the size of a typical paper yard waste bag.

I love a lush, green lawn as much as the next person, but we can all aim to achieve a useable lawn space while also being kind to the environment. If you have too many leaves in one area, spread them out, move them to your garden as free mulch, or start a neighborhood leaf compost pile. If you must haul them away, stick to compostable or reusable containers and consider taking them to a city compost area or even your local Arboretum! Doing your part to help the environment, in this case, means less work for once. So stay inside and watch that football game, the leaves in the yard can wait.