Leaves are not Trash!

As an avid gardener, I always find myself getting frustrated when I see bags of leaves on the street, waiting to be removed either by the city, to be turned to mulch, or by the garbage department. Well today I want to give everyone a news flash! I understand we have been trained to think a leaves look bad when they cover flower beds but there couldn’t be a more counterproductive thing to do, then removing the leaves from your garden! Here are 4 reasons why you should never ever, under any circumstances, throw your leaves away again.


1. It’s not what you do – it’s what you don’t do.

In environments characterized by a mild climate, it takes 200-400 years to form 1cm of soil. This soil is created primarily from decomposing leaves. Removing your leaves every season literally stops the process from accruing. You may be thinking to yourself, “Why does that matter to me. I won’t be here in 200 years and I can always buy soil from Home Depot.” You are not wrong to think that however, in the spirit of being an ecologically responsible gardener, understanding that our actions literally impact the environment and symbolically influence our culture – a gardener should champion ideas of stewardship and plant trees for the next generation.


2. Soil Health, Soil Health, and Soil Health

Soil that naturally occurs in landscapes is alive. What comes out of a bag is sterile and lifeless. It may have minerals added to it, but there are no living organisms in that bag. Fungi, insects and bacteria all feed on decomposing leaves and in return create humus, (not the chickpea kind), but the earthy brown soil, which is earth’s natural super food. 

This nutrient backed, fluffy and airy soil is ideal for garden plants, and what most people don’t understand is that humus naturally occurs when you don’t remove your leaves! Just go to a forgotten part of your garden where leaves have sat for years, lift them up and look at what’s there. Your going to immediately realize how cool and damp it is (ideal for protecting roots from the heat of the summer, regulate ground temperature and conserving water. Chances are, you may notice an earth worn or centipede; which spend their days breaking down nutrients, eating leaves and or other creators. They poop and die and become valuable organic material.  Finally you may see a white web like substance adhering to the leaves; this is fungi. A true master of recycling.

American Museum of National History:    Life on the forest floor    diorama   

American Museum of National History: Life on the forest floor diorama



3. Mycorrhizal fungi: “Robin Hood of the soil” master of recycling.

Mycorrhizal fungi like Robbin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, extracting nutrients from the surrounding soil and handing it over to the plants. This symbiotic relationship of fungi colonizing plants roots, increases water and nutrient absorption capabilities, all in return for carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis of the plants. This relationship is only possible when there’s a healthy soil ecology, created by layers of decomposing leaves. The more we understand ecology the better gardeners we will become.


4. Culture of Waste: Not My Culture

There’s no better way to escape the extremely industrial and excessively wasteful culture we live in than working with nature. By landscaping and tending to a green space or owning a garden of your own, increasing sustainability through thoughtful action can be a result of all your work. Removing leaves from your garden objectifies nature. While you may be well intentioned, knowing the leaves are going off to be turned to mulch, it takes gasoline to power that truck and don’t forget, they’re taking away your mulch!


Moving forward:

The main reason why people throw away leaves is for aesthetic reasons, or to follow the social “norms.” At this point, leaves on the ground can be associated with neglect and no one wants to be judged poorly or accused of not tending to their garden. Below are several ways to tackle this social conflict and take back what is already yours!

1.      Provide public notices: put up a sign explaining why your leaves are there to stay. People are judgmental of things they don’t understand - educate them and they may even become inspired too.

2.      Create garden edges; often what makes a great garden is the balance between the wild and controlled. Leaves decomposing on the forest floor are wild but if you frame them aesthetically, you can create a very intentional design appearance. Garden edges, lips or fences look great and can be used to hold the leaves to your garden beds, allowing them to nicely settle and preventing them from spilling onto pathways or open spaces.

3.      If you really want to get your hands dirty, here’s a way to speed up the composting process. Remove new leaves each season and grind them up into smaller pieces then put them back and watch as creatures will thank you for it! Leaf fragments break down faster and are easier to consume by insects. It also looks more resolved than untouched leaves.

4.      Consider what you growing. Identify what your plants need. Higher PH, lower PH, did they evolve in woods or grasslands? For garden vegetables, you want faster decomposing materials so add your leaves to compost piles with food waste. If you love gardening, I guarantee this will be fun and rewarding homework!