Step Away From That Leaf Blower!

How many reasons do you need to leave some leaves in your landscape?

As fall approaches, the leaf blowers have already started up in our neighborhood. I could write about these noisy, polluting machines. I could also tell you how important leaves are in the garden as a natural mulch and how they contribute to the organic matter in the soil. I’ll save those topics for another day. It’s what leaf blowers are designed to do that troubles me.

Remember the Three Little Pigs story? The big bad wolf (insert leaf blower) says “I’ll huff and I’ll puff till I blow your house down”.

Leaves provide habitat for so many organisms during the different stages of their lifecycles. Without a good layer of leaf litter left on the ground, we are severing so many of the connections in the food and plant web in our ecosystems. Leaves provide much-needed protection from cold temperatures during the winter months, as well as the fluctuating freeze-thaw cycles.

Wildlife gardeners want to provide food and habitat for all wildlife, right?
Consider a few of the many organisms that rely upon leaf litter and their relationship to others in the food web:

AMPHIBIANS

Gray Tree Frogs ~ Hyla species

Gray tree frogs overwinter under leaf litter. They are abundant in our woodland garden during the summer months where they perch on both shrubs and perennials waiting for their meal of beetles, flies, bugs and bees.

Tree Frogs help keep insect populations in balance.

 

 

Wood Frogs ~ Rana sylvatica

Wood frogs overwinter under leaf litter in woodlands. They travel from the woodlands to small ponds and wetlands where females lay eggs in the spring.

Wood frogs feed on beetles and crickets.

Listen to their chorus which I recorded this spring.

Wood Frogs are the prey of Great Blue Herons and other shoreland birds.

Some Salamander species also overwinter under leaf litter such as the Four-toed Salamander.

INSECTS

Goldenrod Soldier Beetles ~ Chauliognathus pensylvanicus

This late summer beetle visitor is an important pollinator of native perennials as they feed on pollen.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetles lay their eggs in leaf litter in the fall. The emerging larvae are food for spiders and beetles.

 

 

Black Damsel Bug ~ Nabicula subcoleoptrata

A voracious predator of other insects including aphids, true bugs, spider mites, and small caterpillars.

Adult Black Damsel Bugs overwinter as adults under leaf litter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth ~ Hemaris thysbe

A beautiful hovering, day-flying moth that nectars on flowers, and aids in the pollination of many of our native plants.

Their caterpillars feed on viburnums and other native shrubs providing food for birds rearing their young.

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth pupa overwinter in a cocoon in the leaf litter.

 

Virginia Ctenucha Moth ~ Ctenucha virginica

Another interesting day flying moth that nectars on flowers and inadvertently pollinates them too.

The larva of this moth overwinter under leaf litter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thin Legged Wolf Spiders ~ Pardosa species

A ground dwelling spider that does not weave a web. It hunts insects in the leaf litter.

It is also the prey of Spider Wasps, who paralyze the spiders and drag them back to their ground nest to rear their young.

See photos of a spider wasp dragging a wolf spider to its nest here.

 

 

 

 

 

Bumble Bees ~ Bombus species

As summer winds down, all Bumble Bees die except for the mated queens. The queens hibernate for the winter under leaf litter, or in abandoned rodent holes.

The queen builds a nest in the spring, often in leaf litter where she lays eggs in the waxy cells.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isabella Tiger Moth (Woolybear) ~ Pyrrharctia isabella

The Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar overwinters under leaf litter. One of the first caterpillars to emerge in the spring.

 Luna Moths

Read Pat Sutton’s post from yesterday about Luna Moths and leaf litter.

 

 

Mourning Cloak Butterfly ~ Nymphalis antiopa

Mourning Cloak Butterflies are one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring (as early as March in the north) because they overwinter as adults, seeking shelter under leaf litter or behind bark.

 

 

 

NATIVE PLANTS

Round Lobed Hepatica ~ Hepatica americana
One of the first woodland spring ephemeral natives to flower, it relies upon a thick blanket of leaves to protect it from freezing during the winter. Tiny native bees, such as the small carpenter bee depend on these early flowering natives as a source of nectar.

Due to the introduction of non-native earthworms, the leaf litter in many deciduous woodlands is devoured and there is insufficient layers of duff.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are studying the decline in spring ephemerals due to earthworms reducing the amount of leaf litter. Read about the study here.

So how many reasons do you need to leave some leaves in your landscape?

© 2011, Heather Holm. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Heather Holm

    Heather Holm is an horticulturalist, photographer & graphic designer who is passionate about native plants, landscape restoration and observing, attracting and documenting wildlife in her yard. Her 2/3 acre landscape in suburban Minneapolis is a Certified Monarch Waystation and received a first place award from the watershed district for the "Best Landscape Restoration" in 2009. She is an active member and volunteer of Wild Ones (Twin Cities Chapter) promoting the preservation and use of native plants in the home landscape. She also volunteers her time with her municipality in landscape restoration projects and writing grant proposals for restorations. She is also author of the popular blog, Restoring the Landscape With Native Plants and the corresponding facebook page.

    Comments

    1. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

      Heather, what a great message! There’s so much life in the leaf litter that if we could learn to leave the litter in place we would get to see so much more wildlife in our gardens. Our salamanders here are in a lot of trouble and we could help them out by leaving their habitat intact.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..In Memoriam, Irma McVey

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Carole,
        Yes I feel like I see much more diversity in my own garden by leaving the leaves. It’s amazing to make these small connections, so many in the food web we don’t even know about or understand.
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    2. Hal Mann says:

      I didn’t know that. And here I’ve been shredding my leaves and putting them in the compost bin. We’ll that makes things easier this fall. Thanks Heather, that’s a big eye opener and a huge help.
      Hal Mann recently posted..Monarch Update

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Hal,
        That’s great you’re keeping the leaves as organic matter, when shredded they do break down faster. Yes! Leave some unshredded, sit back and relax.
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
        • Vincent Vizachero says:

          Heather, this is a great and timely reminder. In my yard, I employ a three-pronged approach to leaves:

          If they land on an impervious surface (i.e. sidewalk, alley, neighbor’s driveway :) then they get shredded and added to my compost pile.

          If they land on my lawn, they get shredded in place by my mulching mower and left to decompose.

          If they land anywhere else, they get left alone.

          Thankfully we have enough trees that there are more than enough leaves each Fall for multiple uses.
          Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Park(ing) Day 2011

          Reply
          • Heather says:

            Vincent,
            Great points! I have a small lawn that I rake leaves off of to areas where the leaves are thin. I love that you compost your neighbor’s leaves too.
            Heather

            Reply
    3. Gloria says:

      This post and Pat Sutton’s yesterday comprise a very important message to those gardening for wildlife. Life in our gardens as in all of nature goes on year round. Much is out of sight, laying low in some low energy needs form, much like the plants themselves. The longer one gardens the more aware of this we become. I love the way wildlife blogs are spreading the experience of those of you that have been at it for awhile.
      My own taste run to appreciation of each season so leaving it in place gives each season in each place a look of its own.

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Gloria,
        Yes, this is a good continuation of Pat’s post from yesterday. I love how she watches and enjoys her landscape and let’s things be, great advice. I find new connections every week but you’re right, so much is under the radar.
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    4. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

      Heather besides the fact that it is easier to leave the leaf litter and that it enriches the soil as it breaks down….a wonderful complement to Pat’s post yesterday…I do not have a leaf blower and never have. I love to leave the litter for all the critters and thx for pointing out the ones I didn’t even know about…
      Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Radiant

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Donna,
        Yes, I’m certainly lucky to ride on the coat tails of Pat’s post from yesterday (without knowing she was going to write). I’m glad you learned about some new critters in the leaf litter.
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    5. Sue Sweeney says:

      beautiful! great use of your outstanding photos.

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Thank Sue
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    6. Pat Sutton says:

      Hi Heather — great piece, photos, points! Thanks so much for sharing.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Hummingbird Garden Tours

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Pat,
        Thanks for you post the day before!
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    7. thevioletfern says:

      Oh, yeah a fellow leaf blower hater! Love learning about all the life that overwinters in leaves. I think I’ll be nonchalantly picking up some of the street side bags in my village so I have even more leaves. Then I’ll put out a sign that says stay here for free bugs and frogs – overwintering leaves here!
      thevioletfern recently posted..What’s Blooming

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Kathy I love the idea of a sign. Any way we can educate people is great.
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
      • Ellen Sousa says:

        ha Kathy – when I read this, I was picturing a sign for birds saying “get your bugs and worms here”! :)

        Heather – great post. I used to shred a lot of my leaves but I’ve stopped doing it knowing how many butterfly caterpillars might be lurking in and among those leaves. Eastern towhee is another bird that we see scratching around in leaf litter looking for bugs to eat….
        Ellen Sousa recently posted..The Year I Shall Win the Pachysandra War

        Reply
        • Heather says:

          Thanks Ellen, I love Towhees but we rarely see them here – such an interesting song. It’s great to hear about what others have observed. Thanks for sharing.
          Heather recently posted..A Beautiful Woodland Aster

          Reply
    8. Carol Duke says:

      Very Important Post Heather! Thank you! Your photos are fabulous. I will not get started about how much I hate those idiotic leaf blowers.
      Carol Duke recently posted..September Garden Walkabout Blooms of Monarchs

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Thanks Carol, I agree leaf blowers are not a positive topic.
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    9. Ellen Honeycutt says:

      This is a great post to keep for reference when explaining the importance of leaving leaves. In Georgia we also point out that the state bird, The Brown Thrasher, looks for food in the leaf litter.
      Ellen Honeycutt recently posted..Flowers of the Fall Roadside

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Great point Ellen! I love brown thrashers but they’re not too common here. Such amazing vocalizations. I plan to take more photos of birds rummaging through the leaves. The cardinals, sparrows and robins are ones that come to mind in my yard.
        Heather
        Heather recently posted..The Importance of Leaves in the Landscape

        Reply
    10. Ruth Parnall says:

      Thanks for the link to the research on earthworms. I live in a sugar-maple-dominated landscape with many spring ephemerals. I have known in general about detrimental effects of non-native invasive earthworms,and I hadn’t thought about the effect of missing leaf litter on those early spring pollinators. Great post.

      Reply
      • Heather says:

        Hi Ruth, I’m glad you found the link interesting. I’m sure we haven’t identified other effects from earthworm introduction as everything’s connected.
        Heather recently posted..A Native European Buckthorn Look-Alike

        Reply
    11. Ruthy says:

      I’m new to this, so I hope my questions don’t seem silly.
      1. What is a mulching mower?
      2. I suppose then, that you clean up all the leaves in the spring. Yes?

      Reply
      • Heather Holm says:

        Hi Ruthy,
        A mulching mower chops up the leaves finely so that can decompose more quickly. It usually does not have an opening for the leaves to blow out the side so they remain under the mower while been chopped by the blade.

        No, I don’t clean up any leaves in my landscape – only those leaves that blow onto patios are collected and redistributed into my landscape. Leaves in my yard are the wood mulch alternative, and the decompose nicely over the summer, providing more organic matter into my planted areas.
        Heather Holm recently posted..Native Plant of the Week: Buttonbush ~ Cephalanthus occidentalis

        Reply

    Trackbacks

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