UF Hack: Save Your Autumn Leaves

Autumn leaves can be collected and piled to make into leaf mold for the garden and to provide overwintering beneficial insects a place to live.

by Lynsey GrosfieldJanuary 18, 2016
PHOTO: Julie Gibbons/Flickr

Typical autumn chores involve bagging up leaves and other plant detritus for disposal, but few of us stop to think what might be dwelling in among the decomposing plant parts.

Hawk moths will cocoon and overwinter in piles of leaves.
Lies Van Rompaey/Flickr

In winter, insects, arachnids and gastropods go into a state of dormancy as part of a life cycle (or metamorphosis) that is adapted to the local climate. Many hawk moths, for example, over-winter in chrysalises in leaf litter, and then emerge in spring. Land snails snuggle just beneath the soil to hibernate behind a door of slime. Ladybugs often shelter in groups under fallen sticks and plant matter or under bark. In essence, many beneficial insects need a place to live over winter, and disposing of raked-up leaf fall in autumn may well be disposing of the creatures hibernating within it.

Ladybugs overwinter in piles of sticks or under bark.
Bojan Rantasa/Flickr

If collecting leaves and deadheads is a necessary part of your autumnal routine, consider fermenting them into leaf mold on-site instead of trucking them off in clear plastic bags. Simply collecting plant detritus in fall and piling it in breathable enclosures made from chicken wire allows the leaves to ferment over two or three years into a rich humus, and provides a place for beneficial insects to spend the winter undisturbed.

Once fully fermented, leaf mold can be added to the garden to add back carbon and nutrients.
Christ Cant/Flickr

Trucking away the riches dropped by the trees and other plants deprives the garden of creatures, carbon and nutrients. The reward is a garden that is host to a wider range of local life, and in a couple years, the leaf mold becomes an excellent addition to garden soil.