I live in a lovely neighborhood, full of mature trees and sprinkled liberally with parks. My neighbors are all friendly, and many people walk regularly, usually with dogs and sometimes with kids. People have beautiful yards for the most part. Yet every fall, my neighbors unwittingly do something very bad for the climate, for the soil, and for the trees and yards they love. Something which slowly causes the soil microorganisms and earthworms to die, and the soil to lose its aeration and structure. Something that robs the soil of its ability to soak up and hold water. Something that puts unnecessary additional carbon into the air, when it could so easily be safely tucked into the ground. Something that tips us towards desertification, not away from it. Towards a warmer climate, not away from it.
You may have guessed it. My neighbors carefully rake up all the leaves that fall from the trees, or blow them into piles (often with gas-powered leaf blowers that put more carbon pollution into the air than a huge truck travelling several states). They put them in large plastic trash bags and send them to the landfill.
Meanwhile the trees must look on in horror. All of that carbon they have sequestered from the atmosphere, and which they intend to gift to the very ground they grow on, stolen. Here in the high desert, the trees thus victimized can look forward to a drier year, a colder winter, and a hotter summer, without the layer of leaf litter that is supposed to insulate their roots and hold in moisture. They can say good bye to many of their myccoryzial partners, who, with the gift of carbon, would be multiplying and creating a nutrient network to feed the tree, and a glue called glomalin to make the soil clumpy and airy. Goodbye to hosts of beneficial microbes that would break down the carbon, and make nutrients available to plants. Goodbye to earthworms, who have nothing to eat, and no reason to create aerating burrows, for there are no leaves to digest and pass as castings – a stable form of water loving carbon. Trees with their fallen leaves removed are not well cared for trees.
It’s as if the humans want to have everything dry up and blow away. Hotter and drier? No problem, they say!
Come on, humans. We can just as easily be carbon sequestering heroes. Like the industrious beaver, which creates rich ecosystems wherever it goes, humans can be super-beneficial to the planet. We just need to get into some different habits, that’s all.
You can start right now! Fall is the perfect time to start. First off, figure out where to stash all your leaves where they can break down over ground that has not been covered in landscape cloth. If you can break up your soil a little first, super (I love me my little steel Dewitt broadfork). If you want to confine the leaves to an area or keep them from blowing away, a light large hoop of chicken wire will do it.
But wait, some of you are saying, stuck back three sentences ago, if I rip out my landscape cloth, won’t I have to contend with a bunch of weeds? The basic answer is no, not if you keep your ground covered in thick but fluffy mulch. However, caveat, lots of plants will be happy to grow in your soil once you make the switch. Stop starving your soil of carbon, and you make it a fertile place. Start adding native plants for zero work carbon sequestering landscapes. Consider also growing native and well adapted perennials that have benefits for you like food, herbs, flowers, and medicine. Wildlife will flock to those benefits too. Use cover crops like a good micro-farmer to boost soil health by growing diverse new batches of mulch for your soil. Graze some chickens if you like. Having lots of plants in your yard is the best way to ensure that carbon is being sequestered in your soil.
Instead of raking up all your leaves in your yard, go out on the street and grab all those leaves out there and add them to your leaf area! Get all you can – get them from neighbors if you have room! If you get yourself a giant pile and you want to break it down into compost, you will need to mess with it a bit: make sure it stays moist but not sodden, and add some nitrogen to get it cooking faster. If you’re not getting any heat inside, then the pile is too small, has too little air, is too dry, or is missing nitrogen. Some good sources of nitrogen include green kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, aged chicken poop or livestock manure (aging can be done in the pile of leaves if you mix it in. Cover with pure leaves to avoid smell). And don’t worry – even if you don’t mess with the leaves at all after piling them, they will break down eventually. Here in New Mexico the hardest part is just keeping them from blowing away.
The easiest of all these recommendations is just to let the leaves stay where they fall. You can relax, knowing you are nature’s partner. You and your soil will have a great winter.
Finally, back to the trees – if you don’t have enough to create a canopy in your yard, you are now ready to plant more trees. For bareroot trees wait until late winter, after leaf mulching. Potted trees can be planted now. Why consider planting more trees? To keep you warm in winter, and to shade you in the summer. To calm the wind. To make leaves. To sequester carbon. To cool the climate. To keep the neighborhood nice.