The idea that leaves should be raked up and trashed or blown out of yards is an antiquated, misguided concept that negatively affects birds and other wildlife. Additionally, this poor practice takes nutrients away from soil and contributes to stormwater runoff when leaves are blown into the street.
How Leaves Benefit Birds & Other Wildlife
+ Leaves provide vital habitat for so many kinds of insects — including pollinators — during different stages of their lives. This means that the birds on your property will have more food when you leave the leaves.
+ Leaves provide nests and nesting materials for birds.
+ In the cooler months, leaves provide necessary warmth to insects and birds as well as plants.
+ As leaves decompose, they add important nutrients to your soil. Healthy soil means more insects and happier plants which equals more bird activity.
+ Leaves can help soil and plants retain moisture from dew during the drier and warmer times of the year. (Again, keep in mind: healthy soil and plants are going to be better for the birds!)
+ If you mow your yard in the warmer months, you can mow over the leaves and “mulch” them. This will still be far more beneficial than trashing them or blowing them off into the street. Another option is to collect them and use them as “mulch” around garden beds, trees, etc. You could also compost the leaves.
+ If you insist on removing a layer of leaves on your turf before winter arrives, you can (and should!) mulch or compost the leaves instead of throwing them or blowing them away.
Why Do so Many People Remove Leaves from Their Yard?
The idea that “pristine” lawns should be sought after dates back to the 18th-century when this type of cultivated landscape design became stylish for the wealthy in France and England. George Washington was such a fan of the trend that he hired an English Landscaper to create the look at Mount Vernon. From the get-go, perfect green carpets of non-native ground covers and grasses were a trend tied to the wealthy and “successful”. Having an open, manicured green space became so desirable due to people wanting to be perceived as having wealth and a higher status in life. People sought that sense of prestige. It was the landscape design of the elite.
Once America saw its suburban housing boom, manicured lawns became a realized dream for homeowners from different socioeconomic backgrounds. No longer was this style just for the rich. Developers ensured the homes they were selling came with the manicured, green lawn that had become part of the American Dream that was being sold. Again, the “pristine” green lawns were a status symbol for homeowners. It was a highly desired component of properties and an excellent selling point.
The status symbol that lawns are associated with still hasn’t changed to this day. The importance put on green, “tidy” lawns is exacerbated by developers and the countless HOAs and CDDs that maintain environmentally harmful rules around yard aesthetics — some rules as specific as to say “X percent of your yard must be green year-round”. (I encountered this when I worked as a Water Conservation Coordinator in Florida.)
As a side note: Something to keep in mind if your home has an HOA or CDD is that HOA and CDD requirements for your yard do NOT supersede local ordinances. For example, many counties have fertilizer ordinances yet homeowners feel pressure to fertilize their lawns because of HOA or CDD rules. Your HOA or CDD cannot imply or force you to break local ordinances. The same can be said for watering days and times. If your local water ordinances only allow you to water once a week, your HOA or CDD cannot pressure you or require you to water more than that, even if your grass is dead and drying up. Do not be afraid to remind your HOA and CDD that they have no legal ground with these matters and that they need to stay in their lane.
Here in Florida, we have Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Legislation, which helps protects homeowners who want to landscape with Florida native and Florida-friendly (drought-resistant, etc.) plants. While HOAs can demand that homes have a certain level of curb appeal and that the aesthetic of each home matches the community, they cannot demand you landscape with turf and other non-native plants.
To Put This All Simply
The idea that leaves shouldn’t be in the landscape and that yards should just be green, regularly mowed non-native grass is based on nothing but an aesthetic the wealthy in Europe and rich American colonizers experimented with in the 18th-century. Many homeowners bought into the idea (and continue to do so) because American culture decided that “tidy” lawns (highly human-controlled outdoor spaces) are signs of money and status.
Homeowners and HOAs Need a Shift in Perspective
Instead of focusing on controlling the environment, prioritizing aesthetics based on 18th-century design of the elite, and wasting/misusing resources (overwatering, over-fertilizing, creating stormwater runoff, etc.), we should be focusing on nurturing our yards for the sake of birds, other wildlife, and native plant communities. Instead of looking at yards with fallen leaves as “unkempt”, we need to start looking at yards with fallen leaves as great and necessary havens for birds and insects.
Additional Tips for Attracting Birds & Other Pollinators to Your Property
To read more tips, check out my article: Tips for Attracting More Pollinators to Your Florida Garden. No matter where you live, you might find this blog post helpful.
Have comments or questions? Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Instagram @emilykeenphotography. And, remember, if you want to attract more birds to your property, leave the leaves.