One of the most beautiful aspects of fall, the changing colour of leaves, comes with an onerous task: raking them all up.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), however, has some green advice for people wishing to avoid back-breaking yard work: leave the rake in the shed and the leaves on the ground.
The not-for-profit land conservation group says leaving fallen leaves in your yard is a small act of nature conservation that can support backyard biodiversity in many ways.
While migratory birds and some butterflies travel to warmer destinations, many native insects, including pollinators, and other backyard wildlife hibernate through the winter — and can use a little neighbourly help.
Dan Kraus, NCC’s senior conservation biologist, says leaves can provide important habitat for many species to hibernate underneath.
“Backyard animals, such as toads, frogs and many pollinators, once lived in forests and have adapted to hibernate under leaves,” says Kraus.
“The leaves provide an insulating blanket that can help protect these animals from very cold temperatures and temperature fluctuations during the winter.”
Another benefit of not raking your leaves is soil improvement.
Kraus points out that as leaves break down, they also provide a natural mulch, which helps enrich the soil. Thick piles of leaves can impact the growth of grass and other plants, but a light covering can improve the health of our gardens and lawns.
As the leaves break down, some of their carbon also gets stored in the soil, allowing your backyard to become a carbon sink.
“While it’s great for cities to provide collection programs to compost leaves, the most energy-efficient solution is to allow nature to do its thing and for the leaves to naturally break down in your yard,” says Kraus.
In 2018 alone, the City of Toronto collected over 92,000 tonnes of yard waste, including leaves, branches and Christmas trees.
And it’s not just leaves that are important for backyard wildlife during the winter.
“Plant stalks and dead branches also provide habitat for many species of insects,” says Kraus. “By cleaning up our yards and gardens entirely, we may be removing important wintering habitats for native wildlife in our communities.
“Migratory and resident birds can also benefit from your garden during the winter. Fruits and seeds left on flowers and shrubs are a crucial food source that sustains many songbirds during the winter, including goldfinches, jays and chickadees. Providing winter habitats for our native birds and insects is just as important as providing food and shelter during the spring and summer.”