A glimpse into your backyard might reveal the red-orange hues of the autumn season. And while the scenery makes for a picturesque postcard, it turns out fallen leaves hold a far greater importance than a photo-op. Fallen leaves are actually a necessary component in ecology. Through photosynthesis, deciduous trees -- trees that shed their leaves to prepare for harsh weather conditions -- take energy conservation steps by allowing their leaves to fall away from them. In hindsight, this complex process actually reveals a rebuilding of sorts, as many leaves fall near the tree’s trunk and end up providing nutrients in a compostable manner. For all of their benefits, fallen leaves still often end up in garbage bags, carted off to what is usually a non-eco-friendly location.
As eco-living becomes a conscious way of life, many often wonder how to take on such a task. With a little understanding of our earth’s ecosystem, the answer could lie in your own backyard.
Think Before You Rake
The value of fallen leaves is almost paradoxical. Trees shed them through a process known as abscission, which literally means “to cut.” When leaves fall to the ground, they marry the soil beneath them and decompose becoming a naturally made mulch in their own right. Their minerals coalesce with the soil, producing nutrients beneficial not only to the earth, but also to those who depend on them for survival. Even the very trees that shed them respond to the fallen leaves as the nutrients are recognized and absorbed by almost anything within immediate surrounding. Leaves also work well as a mulch especially when cut up into smaller pieces (your lawnmower or a mulch mower can do this for you) simply because they add fertilization to the ground and combat weed growth. This also doubles as a composting benefit. Lawns prosper greatly from fallen leaves.
Leaves also serve as a refuge and important source for wildlife. Macroinvertebrates assist with the decomposition phase and serve as a food source for birds. Additionally, macroinvertebrates along with amphibians use fallen leaves as a habitat, protecting them from the elements and predators. Their far-reaching and numerous benefits to a wide assortment of organisms means that fallen leaves can go on to serve a greater importance, even outliving their original structure.
The Importance of Soil
If fallen leaves are an asset to the organisms that rely upon them, then the earth’s soil can be called the vanguard of their existence. Mimicking a sponge, soil generally absorbs the nutrients of leaves deposited, forming an added layer of resources between the earth and leaves. Remember those trees which allow leaves to fall away from its branches? A tree’s root system is a complex labyrinth buried deep within the earth’s soil and it is protected and nurtured from elemental enemies by the resource-rich soil. The extra protection would not be possible if it weren’t for soil.
Soil also makes for a great drainage system. It absorbs rainwater once again creating the cycle of life for many organisms which dwell in its top and middle layers. When the soil is undisturbed or nurtured, it increases in health, making way for plant life to exist and thrive. Starting from the ground up, healthy soil is what gives us our fruits and vegetables!
Leaves & Soil, A Perfect Combination
For all of their individual contributions, it’s easy to see how leaves and soil together make our ecosystem thrive. A healthy soil has so many beneficial factors and fallen leaves serve as a wonderful addition. When soil is healthy it provides food, water, and shelter - and leaves contribute to the overall health of soil.
When we consider the cycle of life, fallen leaves give their nutrients back to the trees which shed them. If those trees do not receive needed nutrients, their health suffers. Trees of course produce oxygen, so unhealthy trees would certainly spell trouble for human desire to breathe clean air. And let’s face it: many scientists agree that biodiversity improves health. Even if you don’t have a case of biophilia (the affinity for natural life forms), recognizing the value of leaves and soil can still have practical benefits. For example, why spend money on mulch when it is likely already in your yard in the form of fallen leaves? Or, why not consider organisms such as worms whose breakdown of soil into organic matter allows air to pass through, thus creating a healthy environment for plant life in your garden?
When we acknowledge soil and fallen leaves as an essential part of our ecosystem, it becomes clear that separating the two to satisfy our sense of “tidiness” is no longer justifiable. So many rely on its coupling that it seems a waste to bag up leaves and forget about their relationship with the earth. As you pause and glimpse into your yard once more before reaching for your rake, think of the life forms already hard at work for you.