Even on a foggy morning, the autumn leaves light up the garden. When they drop, I leave the leaves where they land. They provides food and shelter for caterpillars and other beneficial insects. These invertebrates in turn provide food for the birds, including the baby birds of seed-eating species. The leaves also nourish the soil.

Someone on Facebook suggested that nice people in the suburbs rake and bag their leaves. But as Doug Tallamy writes:

The United Nations designates Biosphere Reserves as places of “ecological significance.” That language has always bothered me because it suggests that there are places on earth without ecological significance. Not so! Every square inch of planet earth has ecological significance, even where we live, work, and play. If we landscape these areas with plant function as well as aesthetics in mind, we can create viable habitat where humans are, not just where humans are not. We must rethink the importance of conserving our fellow earthlings and the ecosystems they depend on. In the past we have treated them as if they were optional: enhancements that we like but do not really need. But nature is not something we should preserve just for the enjoyment of future generations; it is something we must preserve so that we have future generations.

Doug Tallamy, Gardening for Life

I’d rather be nice by encouraging a layer of color and movement around and above the plants, with birds, butterflies, lightning bugs, chipmunks, lizards, and more. Keeping it quiet by not using a mower or gas-powered blower. Keeping it clean by not spraying pesticides or herbicides. Keeping it safe by supporting the biodiversity that supports the web of life, including our food. Keep it friendly by sharing plants, giving tours, and providing space for resting, observing, and visiting.

The front garden has lots of leaf makers: Dogwood, Deciduous Holly, and Wild Cherry. Pines shed needles and pine cones.

We have a lot of trees: fourteen mature pines, eleven other mature evergreens, five big hardwoods, and dozens of smaller trees and large shrubs. Bruce blows leaves, pine needles, and pinecones off the roof. I rake them out of the street and heap them under the trees. Sometimes I use the blower too. The hedges and fence mostly keep the rest from drifting into the neighbors’ yards.

A bench and some signs welcome and inform visitors.
Walk under the Hardy Citrus arch to a garden room walled with Azaleas, a Deciduous Holly, and Pines.

Switching our relationship with nature from foe to friend is urgent, given the huge decline in other living beings. But you can have some lawn and life on the planet too. More is better, according to research that Doug Tallamy did with Desirée Narango.

  • The Homegrown National Park initiative calls for switching 50% of the national lawn area to native plants.
  • A garden with at least 70% native plants provides enough habitat for Chickadees to raise healthy broods.
  • With at least 94% native plants, Chickadees can feed enough baby birds to replace their parents’ generation.

If you grow native trees but grind up and haul off their leaves, you are giving away much of their value in the web of life.

The back garden has a huge Dogwood and an even larger Green Ash, plus a Redbud, loads of Pines, and shrubs.
The Seven-Sons-of-Heaven Tree leans in from the left. Straight ahead, a Red Maple begins to turn red. A Buttonbush anchors the rain garden.

Leaving the leaves is among the easiest of the big shifts ahead as we respond to the environmental crisis. Growing native plants will be relatively easy and fun too. We’re going to walk and cycle more, but drive and fly less. Find a way to do without single-use plastics and all the junk that doesn’t spark joy. Eat plants, not animals. Move away from the rising oceans. Build with conservation and extreme weather in mind. Fortunately, we have the solutions. We just need the personal and political will to put them into action. We are Nature’s best hope!