Good news: Conservationists urge residents to put away the rake and leave the leaves

Conservationists have given reluctant gardeners an environmentally friendly excuse to get out of back-breaking yard work.

Gardening experts and others are urging Canadians to leave the leaves that have gathered in their yard this fall.

Instead of cleaning them up, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has recommended people leave a layer or two of leaves on the ground until spring as “a small act of nature conservation that can support backyard biodiversity.”

Dan Kraus, NCC’s senior conservation biologist, says leaves can provide important habitat for many species to hibernate.

“Backyard animals, such as toads, frogs and many pollinators, once lived in forests and have adapted to hibernate under leaves,” Kraus said in a press release.

“The leaves provide an insulating blanket that can help protect these animals from very cold temperatures and temperature fluctuations during the winter.”

Another benefit of dodging the dreaded fall chore is that the leaves break down into a natural mulch that helps fertilize the soil.

But a thick pile of leaves can be bad for grass growth and other plants by smothering them. A light covering, spread around, can improve garden health, NCC said.

Gardening expert Niki Jabbour told CTV News Atlantic that leaves are “garden gold.”

“In my vegetable garden I use them as mulch, whether in the winter, spring and summer,” she said.

“But I also turn them into something called leaf-mould compost, which is a dark rich compost that you can use to grow better vegetables.”

Stephen Hazell, director of policy at conservation charity Nature Canada, agrees.

“Leaves are a natural source of fertilizer for the soil and they also serve as mulch to suppress weeds,” he told CTV News Atlantic.

“Why pay for fertilizer and mulch when you can get it free falling from the trees.”

Leaves can be stashed under shrubs or trees to help prevent the freeze-thaw cycle, the NCC recommended.

But Halifax residents interviewed by CTV News Atlantic gave the proposal a mixed welcome.

“I think it’s a great idea, I think it makes it easier and if there’s an environmental benefit to it I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” Helen Rivers-Bowerman said.

“But I can see it being difficult in terms of wanting to respect your neighbours and seeing everyone else clean their leaves up.”

But Andrew Bergen wasn’t as keen. “I still like to get out and rake my leaves, it just feels like it’s part of closing up your yard for the season,” he said.

In 2018, the City of Toronto collected over 92,000 tonnes of yard waste, including leaves, branches and Christmas trees, the NCC said.

“The most energy-efficient solution is to allow nature to do its thing and for the leaves to naturally break down in your yard,” Kraus said.

“Plant stalks and dead branches also provide habitat for many species of insects. By cleaning up our yards and gardens entirely, we may be removing important wintering habitats for native wildlife.

“Providing winter habitats for our native birds and insects is just as important as providing food and shelter during the spring and summer.”

--- With files from CTV Atlantic’s Amy Stoodley