Leave The Leaves To Benefit Wildlife
Excerpted from: Leave the Leaves to Benefit Wildlife by Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces.org
It is fall again and we have harvested all of our garden produce and are making sure our outside
faucets are protected against winter’s freeze. The leaves are changing color and tumbling from the
trees — and that means fall cleanup in the yard and garden.
For many people fall cleanup means cutting all the seed heads and stems off the flowers and raking
up all of the leaves. A tidy garden and yard are what many people strive to achieve. Everything clipped
back, leaves raked and removed, messy piles of branches put in the green bin for pick up. This
tidiness may look nice to us, but it is not good for all of the small creatures that live in and around
Many species rely on fallen leaves for cover and to insulate them from the elements. Depending
on the species, butterflies and moths spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars, pupae, or adults.
Out of sight often means out of mind for people and fall is a time when you do not see the bees,
butterflies, and other beneficial insects that were flitting around your flowers all summer. Where do
these insects go when they are not visiting your garden? Some do migrate — like the monarch
butterfly, flying south to overwinter in trees in Mexico or along the California coast — but the
vast majority spend their entire life in and around your property.
Many of our native solitary bees have laid eggs and provisioned nests in soil or in standing dead
trees or hollowed out branches where the young are pupating. Bumble bee queens have found areas
to overwinter under branches, in rock walls and in other relatively dry, snug places.
Great spangled fritillary and wooly bear caterpillars tuck themselves into a pile of leaves for
protection from cold weather and predators.
Red-banded hairstreaks lay their eggs on fallen oak leaves, which become the first food of the
caterpillars when they emerge.
Luna moths and swallowtail butterflies disguise their cocoons and chrysalis as dried leaves,
blending in with the “real” leaves.
Mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter.
There are so many animals that live in leaves: spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes,
mites, and more — that support the chipmunks, turtles, birds, and amphibians that
rely on these insects for food.
Test your knowledge: try the Wisconsin Tree Leaf Idenfication Quiz
Now you are likely asking — how can I possibly have a yard with the wildness of a natural
area? For many people there is no way that they are going to give over their entire yards just to
nature. After all, most yards are designed for humans — not nature. That said you can
provide both a great place to live, to entertain and for kids to play and provide vital winter habitat
for the bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife that also need homes.
Leave our wildflowers to go to seed for the birds — it was amazing and fun to watch how
many birds fed on my sunflower seeds this year — and let our vegetable garden bolt to
provide resources for pollinators. We also allow some messiness.
When you trim back bushes, pile the branches in out-of-the-way places where they can provide
shelter for overwintering bumble bees or butterflies. You may find that wintering birds nest in
these same branch piles.
When the leaves fall, rake them but do not discard them. Instead, pile them on our garden beds or
in the corners of our yard where they might be used by the animals that need this shelter. In the
spring, you can either dig them into the garden beds or put them in the compost.
Spiders and pill bugs are common, as are predatory centipedes and beetles. Where the leaves are
in contact with the soil, you will find great numbers of earthworms that help make better soil for
So next time you have fall
cleanup chores in your yard think about how you can have a yard for
you, your family, and for all of the animals with which we share this planet.
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