How To Use Fallen Leaves To Help Your Landscaping As Well As The Environment

Leaf removal is a fall ritual in the suburbs, but choosing the best way to do it can be more complex than we think, experts say.

When you mow the leaves that accumulate in your yard each fall, or when you rake them up and leave them on the sidewalk, you’re removing an essential food source from your lawn’s natural habitat, environmentalists say.

Countless little critters depend on leaves for winter protection and food, and eliminating them completely from your garden means you’re likely killing beneficial insects, while running out of free mulch and nutrition for your garden beds.

While turf can’t handle the dense leaf cover that blankets our lawns every fall, areas with other plants, like gardens and perennial flower beds, are a great place for debris, said Andrea Kramer. , director of restoration ecology at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

“When the leaves fall, leaving them in those beds is really the best thing to do, because you allow pollinators to complete their life cycle,” Kramer said.

Pollinators like butterflies, moths and bees usually hide during the winter months, surviving as eggs, caterpillars and pupae by attaching themselves to the leaves of native plants like oak trees and under the natural layer of the habitat.


One species of butterfly specifically lays its eggs on oak leaves, which then become the first food for emerging caterpillars. Others even live in the leaves as eggs. Some species of butterflies disguise their cocoons and pupae as dried leaves to blend in with their surroundings.

To support these pollinators, which in turn support the wider food system, Kramer said the rule of thumb is to rake or vacuum whole leaf litter from the lawn and transfer it to your other flower beds. The beds then benefit from the extra winter insulation as well as the nutrients from the leaves when they decompose.

Another option is to mow the leaves with a mulch mower, collecting the resulting material in the mower bag, then transferring it to the beds. This process does not completely shred the leaves and still allows critters that survive the process to hide in your garden.

“When you have to put them in a bag, it’s a lot easier to just rake or mow with mulch and then throw the leaves away. It really doesn’t need to be any more work,” Kramer said. “It’s just a different job – think about it slightly differently because the leaves are an important food source for all wildlife instead of a nuisance to deal with.”

The leaves can also be composted, either through your municipality or by yourself through home composting.

Excess leaves can be collected by your municipality, although each has its own way of collecting leaves. Homeowners should check their community website for more specific guidelines on picking up yard waste, said Mary Allen, director of recycling and education at the Cook County Solid Waste Agency.

The Cook County agency supports composting and natural lawn care practices, Allen said, although the agency does not provide specific guidance on leaves.

Additional yard waste information provided by county websites can be found at the links below:

Cook County:

DuPage County:

McHenry County:

Kane County:

Lake County:

Terri S. Tomasini