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LISTEN: Best leaf management strategy? It depends

Brown fall leaves pile up on a forest floor.
Teresa Homsi
Brown fall leaves pile up on a forest floor in Cheboygan on Oct. 28.

On the North Central State Trail - which runs from Gaylord to Mackinaw City - maples, aspen, and oaks are ablaze with color.

The changes in temperature and light cause the chlorophyll in leaves to break down. As the green pigment disappears, yellow, orange and red hues emerge.

Already, fallen leaves coat the ground. As I walked the trail, I saw neighbors mowing their lawns and raking leaves, and I wondered if it’s best to just let the leaves pile up, as they would on a forest floor.

Turns out the answer is a bit complicated.

“There's really no one-size-fits-all approach,” said Nate Walton, an entomologist and horticulture educator with the MSU Extension Service. “It really is up to the individual to think about what their goals are and manage it in a way that fits with their goals.”

Walton said mulching leaves or chopping them up with a mower is typically the recommended practice. It can help return nutrients to the soil and reduce the need for fertilizer, while clearing the turf.

But he said there may be benefits to letting leaves pile up as well, like protecting pollinators that nest in the leaves.

“There's unfortunately not a lot of research for us to point to and say, ‘these practices are hurting pollinators.’ It's an active area of research,” Walton said. “There's definitely a good argument to be on the side of caution and at least, think about doing it in different ways from what we have done traditionally.”

Walton said some drawbacks to leaving leaves on the ground include concerns of spreading plant diseases and suffocating the turf under the mat of leaves - concerns that mulching resolves.

Brown fall leaves pile up on a forest floor.
Teresa Homsi
Brown fall leaves pile up on a forest floor in Cheboygan on Oct. 28.

For Walton personally, he said he practices a mix of leaf management in his own yard, based on his yard’s unique ecology. Some parts he clears, others sections he lets decompose naturally, and he leaves cleaning the flower beds for spring.

“It's really something where you really have to do your homework if you want to take care of all these different organisms,” Walton said.

While the jury may be out on what the best strategy is, we know the worstthing you can do is bag up “nature’s compost” into plastic bags and throw them in a dumpster.

“The landfill, yeah, is probably the worst thing because there's all the nutrients in those leaves, the organic matter, that could be beneficial to plant life and insect life somewhere else,” Walton said.

Walton said he encourages people to recognize there are many ways to support pollinators like planting flowers and limiting insecticide use - and learn their options for leaf cleanup.

Sometimes that may mean moving leaves to a nearby woodlot, taking them to a municipal compost - or even leaving them alone entirely.

When I set out to find an answer - for what I thought was a simple question - I had assumed we had this all figured out. After all, leaves have been falling for all of human history.

But I guess there are still many mysteries, even in things that may appear to be some of the most routine.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.