How to use fallen leaves to help your landscaping as well as the environment

Disposing of leaves is an autumn ritual in the suburbs, but choosing the best way to do it may be more complex than we realize, experts say.

When you mow down the leaves that collect in your yard each fall, or when you rake them up and leave them at the curb, you’re stripping a critical food source from your lawn’s natural habitat, ecologists say.

Countless little critters rely on the leaves for both winter protection and food, and completely clearing them from your yard means you’re likely to be helpful in killing bugs, while also missing out on free mulch and nutrition for your garden beds.

While turf grass can’t handle the dense cover of leaves that takes over our lawns each autumn, areas with other plants, like gardens and perennial flower beds, are an ideal place for the debris, said Andrea Kramer, director of restoration ecology at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

“When the leaves fall, leaving them in those beds is really the best thing to do, because you’re allowing the pollinators to complete their life cycle,” Kramer said.

Pollinators like butterflies, moths and bees typically take cover during the winter months, surviving as eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises by attaching to the leaves of native plants like oak trees and under the natural layer of habitat.

One species of butterfly specifically lays its eggs on oak leaves, which then become the first food for the caterpillars that emerge. Others even live in leaves as eggs. Some moth species disguise their cocoons and chrysalises as dried leaves to blend in with their environment.

To support these pollinators, which in turn supports the larger food system, Kramer said the gold standard is to rake or vacuum up fallen leaves whole from turf grass and transfer them to your other plant beds. The beds then benefit from the extra winter insulation as well as the nutrients from the leaves as they break down.

Another option is to mow the leaves with a mulch mower, collecting the resulting matter in the mower bag and then transferring it to the beds. This process doesn’t completely shred the leaves and still allows the critters that survive the process to hunker down in your yard.

“When you have to put them into a bag, it’s way easier to just rake or mulch mow and then dump the leaves. It really doesn’t have to be more work,” Kramer said. “It’s just different work — thinking about it slightly differently as leaves as an important food source for all the wildlife instead of a nuisance to be dealt with.”

Leaves can also be composted, either through your municipality or on your own through backyard composting.

Any excess leaves can be picked up by your municipality, though each one has its own way of collecting leaves. Homeowners should go to their community website for more specific guidelines on yard waste pickup, said Mary Allen, recycling and education director with the Solid Waste Agency of Cook County.

The Cook County agency supports composting and natural lawn care practices, Allen said, though the agency doesn’t advise on leaves specifically.

Additional yard waste information provided by county websites can be found at the links below:

Cook County:

DuPage County:

McHenry County:

Kane County:

Lake County:

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