Love Them and Leave Them

Leaf Love: ‘Lazy’ Gardening for a More Robust Ecosystem

By Kate Small

Gardener at Marin Art and Garden Center

As the seasons turn and fall fades to winter, we are surrounded once again by magnificent, multi-hued foliage. Varied shades of scarlet, amber, and bronze brighten the shortening days. Many deciduous trees have already shed their leaves. Others still will shed theirs in the weeks ahead, further blanketing our landscapes. 

For many gardeners, this is a busy time of year: packing green bins to the brim each week, and filling countless brown yard waste bags. And yet, when it comes to managing fallen leaves, the most eco-conscious act is to take no action at all. More tidying now means fewer butterflies emerging in spring, fewer songbirds alighting in summer, and perhaps fewer fruits and veggies—that rely on insect pollination—to harvest from our edible gardens through the fall. 

For several years, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has championed a #leavetheleaves campaign to spread awareness. The message is this: wherever possible, leave leaves to decompose where they fall. Do this for the health of your plants and the environment as a whole. 

Healthy Soil. Fallen leaves provide the same benefits as other organic mulches like wood chips or rice straw, and in some ways are preferable to these alternatives—more on that below. A layer of leaves holds moisture in the soil, limits runoff, provides some protection from foot-traffic compaction, suppresses weeds, and feeds soil organisms. Microorganisms, in turn, break leaves down into plant-available nutrients. When you leave the leaves, rather than interrupting the nutrient cycle by removing them, your plants will stay healthier with fewer added fertilizers. Fallen leaves are free. And no fossil fuels were burned to move them. A win-win.

Happy Pollinators. A blanket of leaves shelters a vast array of butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps through the winter. Some species overwinter as larvae, like the wooly bear caterpillar. Some species, including swallowtails, spend winter in a chrysalis designed to blend in with dried leaves, waiting for warming temperatures to emerge. Others, including the mourning cloak butterfly, hibernate as adults under dry leaves. Removing leaves will significantly reduce their populations the following spring. Ground-nesting native bees, some of the most efficient among the pollinators we rely on, can still access their nests through a leaf layer. Wood chip mulch, on the other hand, may leave them stranded.

Harmonious Ecosystem. Slugs, snails, centipedes, beetles, crickets, and countless other invertebrates thrive in fallen leaves. While these may not be among your favorite garden creatures, they are an important part of the food web. Myriad birds, lizards, and small mammals feast on them at a time when other sources of food are scarce, plus use fallen leaves themselves to make nests and hide from predators. Raptors and larger mammals, in turn, rely on the food source of small vertebrates. One interrupted link in the food web and there is a cascading negative impact on all.

Skip the Shredder. If you have places that leaves cannot be left to decompose, like on top of hardscape or where they would smother low-growing perennials, consider collecting these and spreading them elsewhere in the garden. Pile the leaves under trees and shrubs—taking care not to bury the root crown—or use them as mulch in your vegetable beds. When you do, leave them whole. Shredding leaves will shred overwintering pollinators along with them. 

Leaving leaves does not have to be an all or nothing approach. If this is new to you and you pride yourself on a meticulous garden, consider starting with one area to leave a little wilder this season. Of course, the more the better. The birds and bees will thank you. 

Further Reading:

From the Xerces Society, on more steps you can take this season to help insects thrive:

Nesting and Overwintering Habitat: For Pollinators and Other Beneficial Insects

From the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, on getting to know the wide range of organisms found under the leaf layer:

Life in the Leaf Litter

More to explore

IRS Guidelines for Gifts from Donor Advised Funds to Support MAGC Events

Thank you for your interest in giving to the Marin Art & Garden Center events from your Donor Advised Fund (DAF) or Family Foundation.

We sincerely appreciate your generosity and support!

To ensure your gift follows the current IRS guidelines for DAF/Family Foundation support of an event, we would like to share the below guidelines with you.

  • Raffle tickets, tickets to galas and other special events, auction items, and benefits conferred in connection with a DAF/foundation grant are not permitted.
    • IRS has specifically ruled that fair market value associated with fundraising events cannot be separated, a practice known as “bifurcation.”
      • For example, with Edible Garden, if the price of the ticket is $200 and the FMV fair market value (non-tax-deductible amount) is designated to be $50, the donor must pay from sources other than her DAF/foundation for the full value of the ticket ($200) and not just for the non-tax-deductible amount ($50).
    • We recommend you confer with your financial advisor to confirm if any of these examples of how donors may still use their DAF to support an event would work for you:
      • A donor could sponsor the event, and not attend, and pay fully out of the DAF/foundation.
      • A donor could sponsor the event using DAF/foundation funds and attend by purchasing an individual ticket through non-DAF/foundation funds.
      • A donor could sponsor the event, join the event as a guest of another donor/table guest, and pay fully out of the DAF/foundation.
      • A donor could sponsor the event and host the afforded number of people at their chosen level as long as they pay for the seats at the lowest ticket price ($200 for Edible Garden) outside of their DAF.
        • As an example, a $1,500 sponsor that covers 2 guests, could pay for their sponsorship with $400 from a different source of funds, and then give an additional gift of $1,100 out of their DAF.


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