Leave the Leaves in Fall and Keep Your Yard and Wildlife Happy

By 5 m read
Leave the leaves Wildlife Habitat - Still a lot of purpose left (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Still a lot of purpose left (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

It’s a tradition, a chore, and even fun! Fall is nearly behind us…some mornings are frosty and the long-range weather forecast (however accurate that is) promises some snow.


So let’s spend a sunny Saturday afternoon cleaning up the leaves. Rake them into a pile, jump in (once, for old time’s sake), bag them, and have them brought to a landfill to be turned into greenhouse gases, warming the planet. Wait what?! Something doesn’t sound right. Let’s start over again.

Leave the leaves Thanksgiving - Everyone loves a leaf pile! (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Everyone loves a leaf pile! (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Do you love butterflies fluttering by in summer? Singing birds, announcing that spring is just around the corner? Wild bees pollinating your flowers? Your lawn growing back strong and green without harmful fertilizer? Frogs starting their evening chorus from the pond? Growing vegetables without having to use pesticides? If you said yes to one or more of the above questions, then you do not want to rake your leaves. Or cut your annuals, for that matter. 


Raking leaves makes your garden center richer by first selling you leaf bags (and even leaf blowers) and then grass fertilizer in the spring. But it leaves your backyard wildlife a whole lot poorer. 


When I really have the urge to clean and tidy up, I start with my basement. As much as I love wildlife, the basement is not part of our wildlife habitat (although every winter, a few mice find a way to think differently).

Leave the leaves Wildlife Habitat - Fertilizing the yard (Photo by Viana Boenzli)
Fertilizing the yard (Photo by Viana Boenzli)

Toward the end of fall, when most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, use your lawnmower and mulch the leaves directly into the grass. If you have a woodburning stove, save some of the wood ashes and apply on top of the lawn. You’ve just fertilized your lawn for a strong return next spring! 


A large maple tree in our backyard leaves us with so many leaves that the lawnmower has a hard time mulching it all in.  So, we rake some of them and make a few leaf piles along the fence and at the base of a tree, creating an overwintering habitat for insects and amphibians.

Leave the leaves Wildlife Habitat - Millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis) are great little composters (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Millipedes (Apheloria virginiensis) are great little composters (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

We also don’t cut our annuals back until later in spring. This way, they’ll drop their seeds and spread their beauty, while also hosting of a myriad of beneficial insect eggs in their hollow stems over the winter.


If you use a real Christmas tree every year (like we do), don’t throw it in the thrash after Christmas. Find a friend with a goat and they’ll both be happy (pine needles are high in vitamin C and good for intestinal worm control…we’re talking about the goat’s benefit, not your friend’s). If you don’t have a friend with a goat (I guess not everybody has one), toss the tree in a far corner of your backyard. It will provide excellent winter shelter for many species of birds. The Christmas tree will break down over the years, adding excellent organic material to the soil. Each year, just add the next tree to the pile. 


Here’s a list of a few of your patio friends that will be very happy if you leave them some leaves, annuals, and a Christmas tree:


Native bees can overwinter in hollow stems of large annuals. Some survive the winter as eggs or larvae in the ground. These important pollinators are part of next year’s backyard blooming success. 


Think about ladybugs. These excellent controllers of pests overwinter under leaves, at the base of plants, and under some rocks…sometimes in the thousands! How about that for biological pest control next spring?


Then there are predatory insects. Yes, that sounds a bit scary, but we’re talking about insects here…not lions. Lacewings, ground beetles, damsel bugs, and scores of other species. These guys like to spend the winter under leaves…as adults, eggs, or larvae. If you have them in your backyard, they’ll be ready to start munching on early-emerging pests as soon as the weather warms up in spring. 

Leave the leaves Wildlife Habitat - Damsel Bug (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Damsel Bug (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

And then of course, the one we all love, butterflies! They absolutely depend on leaf piles and annuals left standing. Some species survive the winter as eggs buried under the leaves. Others, like members of the swallowtail family, might spend the winter as a pupae hanging from a dead branch or annual plant. Viceroys and fritillaries survive as caterpillars rolled up and tucked in a leaf. And some, like the mourning cloak – a species that can reach a wingspan of up to four inches – overwinters under leaves as an adult, in a state of stupor. If you ever happen to see a mourning cloak on a sunny day in February, your attitude toward yard cleanup will change forever. 


Your backyard is an important wildlife habitat. It’s more than just putting out a bird feeder and providing a bird bath. Birds also need shelter. They like the berries left on your bushes and are excellent at finding overwintering insects under and within your leaf piles. If they find a good habitat in your backyard, come spring, they might decide to raise their family right there and you might find…….

Leave the leaves Wildlife Habitat - Next year’s Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) fledgling (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Next year’s Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) fledgling (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Of course, there’s one exception to the “do not clean up the leaves” rule. Your gutters. Yes, they have to be cleaned. That’s not part of your backyard wildlife habitat. Sorry 🙂


As soon as spring is on the horizon, we’ll talk about the best way to clean up the yard without harming the wildlife that just made it through the winter. Your backyard residents will be very thankful. 


Here are a few more of our yard & garden articles you may enjoy:


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