While working on and researching a program on this topic I’ve been contacted by some folks who could not attend. So I am sharing here excellent resources that will help anyone and everyone understand the value of fallen leaves. I will list these resources here so that you can read them, study up, digest the information, and value and cherish fallen leaves as much as I do.
First you’ll want to read Doug Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks. This book richly covers the benefits of oaks and all their leaf litter. If you’ve never heard Doug Tallamy speak about this topic, attend a presentation or google “Doug Tallamy Youtube Nature of Oaks” and watch one of his presentations that occurred in your region. Be sure to listen until the Q&A session when attendees ask the very questions on your mind, like “But, what am I to do with all my Oak leaves?” “Won’t they kill my grass?” etc.
Since Doug Tallamy’s first book, Bringing Nature Home, he has shared the top native plants used by butterflies and moths as host plants to create the next generation. Tallamy refers to these plants as the “Keystone Native Plants.” He is partnering with other organizations, like National Wildlife Federation, to share Keystone Native Plant information across the country.
For an annotated list of the Keystone Native Plants for your area, go to the National Wildlife Federation Garden for Wildlife website. Here you’ll find ten different “Keystone Native Plants” Ecoregion handouts (as of February 2022), with others undoubtedly planned. This plant list should be the backbone of your plantings. If you live in southern New Jersey like me, scroll down to “Eastern Temperate Forests – Ecoregion 8″ (which covers nearly all of the East).
Oaks are the top Keystone Native Plant! Then Black Cherry and Beach Plum. Then Willows. Then Birch. And so on. These are the trees that are supporting many, many hundreds of butterfly and moth species. Value these trees and their fallen leaves. You will have made your trees “Ecological Traps” if you instead rake up the leaves, bag them, and send them away (along with all the life they hold and support).
Heather Holm’s 3 books on pollinators of our native plants are beautifully illustrated and packed with natural history information, including where and how our pollinators survive the winter . . . many do so in leaf litter!
Visit Heather Holm’s website and click on the link “Plant Lists & Posters” for beautifully presented and illustrated Native Plant Lists, pollinator fact sheets, and posters, many of which are free to download. These materials will further help you understand life cycles of our pollinators and teach others!
Also on Heather Holm’s website, click on her latest project “Soft Landings.” Soft Landings is all about leaving the leaves and planting diverse native plants under Keystone trees and shrubs rather than mowing so that the hundreds of species of butterflies and moths using these Keystone trees and shrubs might complete their life cycle and survive when their caterpillars drop to the forest floor to pupate down in the warmth and safety of the leaves. The downloadable free poster, “Soft Landings” tells the story beautifully. It should convert kids of all ages (yes, I’m talking about big kids too . . . adults) to leave the leaves where they fall.
The Xerces Society’s post, “Leave the Leaves,” is an excellent read addressing those fallen leaves as “free mulch” and helping to answer questions people have, like whether or not to shred their leaves. The Xerces Society also sells a very attractive Leave the Leaves SIGN, that might help trigger educational conversations with neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family.
One more excellent resource to better understand why you want to leave the leaves is the booklet “Life in the Leaf Litter,” by Johnson and Catley, published by the American Museum of Natural History and available on their website as a free download.
Shade Gardening in Your Leaf Litter
Once you’ve read all these terrific resources about just how important leaf litter is, begin shade gardening in leafy spaces on your property . . . in under your trees and shrubs (rather than continue to mow these areas) or along a path through your woods.
Shade-loving perennials will color your leafy spaces in the early, early spring when spring ephemerals bloom and in the fall when the many shade-loving, fall-blooming perennials bloom. Through the summer months the fall bloomers will add a lovely layer of green to your leafy areas.
To help you along your way with SHADE GARDENING, go to my resources on this topic and learn what has survived and thrived in my shady spaces. Remember to use as many Keystone Native Plants as possible!
Now with all the time you have available because you are NOT raking your leaves (nor bagging them up and sending them away), dive in to all this reading and help convert others to LEAVE THE LEAVES!