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Why leaving your leaves is loving your leaves

Leaves provide essential winter habitat for wildlife. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

We gardeners can sometimes do strange things in pursuit of our craft. There was once a time when I would “nicely” rake our neighbour’s lawns in the fall without asking. I even went so far as to coerce my roommates into helping me gather and haul garbage bags of leaves back to our yard.

Traditionally, in the name is keeping things tidy, people with yards are taught to rake our leaves and put them in bags or bins to be hauled away by the city. As a gardener, however, you learn that leaves aren’t trash. They’re a valuable resource.

Big piles of leaves aren’t just fun to jump in. They can be incredibly helpful in garden beds. During the fall and winter, rain, snow and freezing temperatures can cause exposed soil to erode. Nutrients like calcium and nitrogen get washed away, and the result is that, by the spring, our soil can be depleted and acidic.

One of the best ways to preserve your soil over the winter is to use mulch – essentially a “blanket” of organic material spread over the soil. This multi-purpose technique is good for much more than just protecting against drought conditions.

By mulching, we support nature’s processes. There’s a reason why trees lose their leaves in the winter, and it’s not to annoy you. As the temperatures get colder, trees conserve their energy and protect themselves against the cold by dropping leaves. The fallen leaves help protect roots against freezing temperatures, and eventually turn into nutrient-rich compost.

In addition to protecting the soil, fallen leaves serve as a winter refuge for wildlife. The US-based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is encouraging people to “leave the leaves”, which provide an essential winter habitat and food source for many birds, insects such as butterflies, and even reptiles and amphibians. While the city of Vancouver composts the leaves it collects, the NWF says that many municipalities around North America throw the leaves into landfills, a wasteful process that results in greenhouse gas production.

How to tidy your yard without getting rid of leaves

  • Rake your leaves up and spread them around your garden beds in a layer of about two to three inches. Leave a bit of space near the base of your existing plants. This works not just for vegetables, but also for perennial plants.
  • Learn to identify tree species based on their leaf shapes. Some leaves, such as oak, contain chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. Don’t use them for mulch. I also avoid using needles from conifers such as cedar and pine, as they can be acidic and don’t break down well. Neatly pile these leaves near the base of the trees they came from.
  • Reserve some leaves for your compost pile. They’re a great source of “brown material”, which is essential for the composting process.
  • If you aren’t much of a gardener, rake up your leaves and offer them to your gardener friends for pickup. They might be surprisingly grateful.
  • If you’re ambitious, run over the leaves with a lawn mower to shred them. This makes them an even more effective compost.
  • If you’re not in the mood for raking, don’t worry! Just tell yourself that you’re protecting the environment.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. Join her on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00pm for Fabulous Urban Gardens on “Home” with host Jana Lynne White. She blogs about urban food gardening at

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