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Why do we continue to rake leaves?

In our busy, time-starved lives, efficiency and convenience are prized. In order to accomplish everything on our work and to-do lists, we schedule, multitask, and prioritize our days. Indeed, an entire industry focused on the creation of gadgets exists to help us achieve more in less time. In a rather head-spinning twist, gardening, once a relaxing, contemplative activity is now fully enmeshed in "getting things done". Truthfully, many of these conveniences are a godsend. However, as we become more aware of the fragility of the natural world, now is a good time to pause and determine whether unrecognized collateral damage is being done for the sake of efficiency.

Fallen leaves are an area ripe for consideration. I was in the camp that loves dealing with autumn leaves. There is a feeling of accomplishment when an area of the yard is returned to a more tidy state. While I haven't owned a leaf blower, I have used plenty of machines over the years to help me get things in order. In the recent past I have raked leaves into the woods, mowed them with a mulch mower, run them through a leaf shredder to use for mulch, and bagged them whole to use the following summer. I believed these were good practices, better than having them hauled away, until I better understood the value of fallen leaves to the other-than-humans with which we share the planet.

Here are some relationships I have come to understand that now helps me resist clearing the yard:

  • Leaves are overwintering sites. Swallowtail butterflies and luna moths typically survive the cold in camouflaged chrysalises in leaf and garden debris, while some types of fritillaries overwinter as caterpillars in leaf duff. Disturbing the leaf layer could damage the cocoon or kill the insects outright.

  • Leaves are insulation. A layer of leaves provides shade and moisture for toads and frogs during the hot days of summer. Beloved fireflies require moist soil for all growth stages, especially the larval stage, which can last up to two years.

  • Beneath leaves is a cornucopia of food. On a recent field trip with members of Maine Audubon, it was pointed out that the thrush family of birds (robins, veerys, hermit and wood thrushes, etc), as well as many others, scratch for food in leaf duff. Surprisingly, leaf duff that is deeper than 1.5 inches is preferred.

I am completely aware we can't do all that is needed to save the planet. However, leaving the fallen leaves in place is something I can wholeheartedly do, and use the time to wander the woods and fields admiring fall leaves.

Barbara Murphy

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