Use the leaves, leave the leaves, or rake to curb?

spangled fritillary butterfly, red leaf, and bumble bee
Leaving the leaves in your yard can help pollinators survive the winter. The caterpillar of the great spangled fritillary tucks itself into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators. Mated queen bumble bees burrow into the soil and an extra layer of leaves helps them survive the winter. Fritillary photo courtesy David Cappaert,; other photos by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Where do our pollinators go in the winter?

A lot of them stay right here in Western New York.

You may have created a welcoming habitat for them in spring, summer and autumn with native plants. Now it’s time for us to create a welcoming habitat for them during winter.

It’s easy, too! Just leave the leaves.

Why leave the leaves?

We need pollinators, and pollinators need those fallen leaves in order to survive over the winter.

The vast majority of butterflies and moths overwinter in the landscape, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization. The butterflies and moths overwinter in various stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult. For example, the caterpillar stage of the great spangled fritillary butterfly tucks itself into a pile of leaves for protection from cold weather and predators.

Bumble bees also rely on leaf litter for protection. At the end of summer, mated queen bumble bees burrow only an inch or two into the earth to hibernate for winter. An extra thick layer of leaves is welcome protection from the elements.

And it’s not just pollinators that we have to be concerned about. Other invertebrates that live in leaves during winter include spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, mites and more. They are important food for chipmunks, turtles, birds and amphibians, according to Xerces. Leaving the leaves provides habitat for these small, but important, creatures.

To mimic the natural ecosystem an animal needs, the layer of leaves needs to be at least a couple of inches thick. 

What about my lawn?

A sprinkling of leaves won’t hurt your lawn. In fact, when you mow again in spring, the crunched-up bits of leaves will fall into the grass, returning nutrients to the soil.

But some people don’t like autumn leaves on their lawn because they feel it looks messy. Others may have a two-inch mat of leaves on their lawn, which can kill the grass.

In either case, rake the leaves off your lawn, but keep the leaves in your yard.

Rake your leaves, but keep them in your yard

The leaves don’t need to be left exactly where they fall, Xerces notes.

If you have a thick covering of leaves that you worry will kill your grass, you can rake the leaves into garden beds.

In addition to creating habitat for insects, the leaves are good mulch for your gardens. The leaves can suppress weeds, retain moisture and boost nutrition in your soil.

Use leaves as mulch around your perennials now to help make sure the roots don’t heave up out of the ground. It’s especially important when we don’t have snow cover.

You can also use those leaves to create a path.

It’s best to keep the leaves whole; don’t shred them.

Can I chop up my leaves and compost them?

I do chop up leaves for compost. But don’t worry; I have plenty of other leaves, too.

Those other leaves didn’t fall into my yard. Quite a few of my neighbors rake their leaves to the curb, so if I run out of leaves at home, I can find plenty to use in my garden beds. I just walk a few doors down and help myself.

5 Comments on “Use the leaves, leave the leaves, or rake to curb?

  1. Leaves are natures gift and we should absolutely leave them in the gardens. Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention.

    Leaving perennials up all winter also offers habitat for beneficial insects and food (seed heads) for birds. The plant crowns help protect the roots from temperature fluctuations. As for hosta leaves, they get mushy so can be cut back. Any diseased or insect infected perennials should be cut back, leave the rest.

  2. We mulch leaves with lawnmower and do not need to use lawn fertilizer. Our lawn is lush and green.

  3. What about leaving plants like hosta’s or clematis over the winter? Is it a good idea or not?

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