It’s an annual tradition (or chore, depending on your perspective) to clean up the garden, rake or blow leaves from the lawn and generally tidy up the landscape before winter.
A certain amount of cleanup is important to get in before snowfall. But how and what you do makes a difference.
Take leaves, for example. Ever notice how we ooh and aah over colorful autumn leaves on trees, then when they fall on the lawn the cursing begins? Stop cursing the leaves. Turn them into organic matter instead.
When mulched with a mower, small pieces of leaves can fall between grass blades into the turf, providing nutrients and organic matter that benefit the lawn and soil. The leaves of some trees, such as maples, are known to reduce germination of weed seeds when they have been mulched into the turf. Mulched leaves from honey locust trees add nitrogen.
Frequent mowing is necessary to assure leaves are fully mulched into the lawn.
So, do you prefer to rake or to mow? Mowing can benefit the lawn (if leaves are chopped into small pieces). Raking can wrench your back. Up to you.
There are differing views on what to do about leaves that fall in flower and vegetable beds: one favors plant material; the other favors overwintering insects, including pollinators.
From a plant perspective, working dried, shredded leaves into soil is a great source of organic matter, just as it is for the lawn. Another option is to use leaves as mulch for perennials. Four or 5 inches of shredded leaves applied in late November (following a few hard freezes) helps protect perennials from frost-heave cycles during the warmish-one-day and frigid-the-next temperatures of our Nebraska winter.
Another view on what to do with garden bed leaves takes the perspective of overwintering insects.
Monarch butterflies migrate south for the winter but many insects, including other pollinators, stay right here. And leaf litter is their winter cover.
The lovely fritillary butterfly, for example, lays its eggs in the fall; the larvae hibernate over winter and in spring search for violets, their primary food. The pretty Eastern-tailed blue butterfly winters over as a tiny caterpillar hiding in leaf cover near its host. The luna moth disguises its cocoon and chrysalis as a dried leaf. The woolly-bear caterpillar tucks itself under leaves for protection from cold weather.
Shredding leaves found in garden beds can potentially destroy those eggs, caterpillars and chrysalis. On the other hand, too thick of a layer of leaves can lock in too much moisture and potentially damage the perennials they are intended to protect.
Perhaps a middle ground is to pile whole leaves in thick layers on unplanted portions of a garden bed or in the wood-mulched area near trees and shrubs.
At our house, leaves that fall on turf are mulched into the lawn. Leaves that fall on garden beds are left until spring. Whatever you do, don’t bag leaves. Bagging leaves costs money, fills up the landfill and removes important nutrients that could be put to better use.