Autumn is upon us, and that might mean the leaves in your yard are starting to change color and fall.
But if you were planning to add raking the yard and bagging up leaves to your weekend to-do list, think again. Experts say raking and removing leaves can be worse for your yard – and for the planet, too.
Leaving at least some of the leaves in your yard can help fertilize your grass and other plants, provide shelter for animals and even reduce emissions from landfills. Here's what you need to know about managing the leaves on your lawn this fall.
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Fallen leaves can be a natural fertilizer for plants, David Mizejewski, a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, told USA TODAY.
“The leaves fall around the root zone of these plants, where they do things like suppress weeds or other plants from growing that would otherwise compete with the trees and the shrubs,” he said.
“They slowly break down and compost right there at the base of the of the tree of the shrub, right above its root zone, where they return nutrients that the plant can then recycle and reuse next spring.”
That's a good idea. Mowing your lawn can break up leaves and bring nutrients to your grass, according to Maxim Schlossberg, an associate professor of turfgrass nutrition and soil fertility at Penn State.
“Since they’re smaller, they're more rapidly dismantled and decomposed by microorganisms. And the whole recycling process of those nutrients being returned to the soil occurs more rapidly.”
If you usually rake leaves in your yard, put them in bags and throw them away, you might want to change your routine this autumn.
Landfills in 2018 received about 10.5 million tons of yard clippings, including leaves, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mizejewski said leaves and other organic matter sent to landfills can break down and form methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
“At this time of year, unfortunately, a huge volume of leaves just go sit in those landfills and produce all this terrible greenhouse gas,” he said. “The more we can keep that organic material out of the landfill, the better."
The layer of leaves in your yard around trees and other plants is “really important wildlife habitat,”Mizejewski said, and forms “an entire ecosystem in and of itself.”
“There are probably thousands of different species that actually live in that leaf layer,” he said. "Most of them are invertebrates, so think of everything from earthworms and little pillbugs and all sorts of little critters that live in that leaf layer. But also higher up the food chain, salamanders, toads, box turtles, shrews and chipmunks”
Caterpillars, which provide food for birds, also often find a home in leaf layers.
“So what happens if you get rid of every last leaf on your property? You’ve just swept away and bagged up and thrown into the landfill the food source that the birds are going to need to feed their babies,” Mizejewski said.
Schlossberg also warned that if you were planning to blow leaves from your yard into the street, that can disrupt drains and local waters.
“When you have foreign debris, they can clog the grates, and that can prevent water from moving off the surface of the street,” he said.
Leaves can also end up in streams and rivers where drains lead. That can affect the water quality and “sensitive species adapted to those waterways,” Schlossberg said.
“It’s a little bit like a trash dump, if you will, even though it’s natural organic material,” he said. “It still persists and can be problematic.”
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If the leaves on your lawn are forming a mat over your grass, experts agree that you can move them as the weather cools across the country.
Mizejewski recommended placing leaves in garden beds or raking them into a bigger pile and letting them “naturally compost there and break down.”
“Don’t get rid of every last single leaf that falls onto your property, if you can. There’s great, easy things to do with them,” he said.
Schlossberg urged people to rake up leaves or break them up with a lawnmower if you're expecting snow soon.
"Once there’s snow, you’re not going to mow, and that snow is really going to facilitate that matting, and that coverage is going to prevent the leaves from being displaced by winds. That’s the situation you really want to avoid," he said.
But whatever you plan to do with the leaves on your lawn, experts say, consider the plants and animals in your yard and the environment at large.
“We each have an opportunity to do to take this personal action and think about how our own little piece of the Earth, our own yards or our own gardens in our neighborhoods or communities, are all opportunities for us to do something good for nature,” Mizejewski said.
A version of this story was published in 2021.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Should I rake my leaves this fall? Not necessarily, experts say