Leave the leaves, please!

White-throated sparrow foraging in the leaf litter


Guest Column by Maria de Bruyn

Our town is fortunate to have county workers who collect yard debris, Christmas trees and leaves during the autumn and winter seasons. The county then sells the processed vegetative material as yard mulch. But rather than buy mulch from them or from stores, it’s worthwhile if we just participate in leaving the leaves on neighborhood and town properties.

Older readers may remember the days when car windows had to be cleaned after a weekend drive because they were covered in smudges from the many insects that died on impact. Those days are long gone; people may think that’s a boon, but it’s actually a sign of the “insect apocalypse” — scientific research has shown that more than 40 percent of insects are in danger of extinction.

Eastern Bluebird with Caterpillar

Why should we care about this? Of most direct impact on people is the loss of pollinators, most of which are insects. Pollinators are responsible for about 35 percent of our food crops and at least 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants. A number of important medicines also come from pollinated plants. Without insects, other wildlife species are in trouble — birds and other animals (including fish) lose an important food source. Insects are important in nutrient recycling, which helps maintain healthy freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems.

What is contributing to the loss of insects? There are multiple human-caused/influenced factors responsible for this rapidly increasing devastation: 1) use of pesticides and herbicides, 2) habitat loss due to conversion of land to intensive (monoculture) agriculture, construction and invasive plants which do not sustain the native insects; 3) environmental pollution (affecting the ground, water and air, even including too much artificial light) and 4) climate change/global warming.

What can we as individuals do? There are various measures that we as individuals can do — even if we don’t have homes with yards! If each person planted and maintained a flowerpot with a plant that attracts bees (e.g., lavender, rosemary, lantana), we would increase the habitat for these essential pollinators. Supporting local beekeepers by buying local honey is also a good step. We can additionally put outside night lights on timers, avoid using bulbs that mimic daylight and put covers on lights to minimize their range.

If we do have yards or contribute to maintenance of public lands, we can remove invasive plants (like privet and nandina). We can convert some (or all) of our lawns to wildflower and native plant areas. Reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides will be very beneficial.

And we can stop removing the leaves, which help suppress weeds and fertilize the soil as they break down. If you don’t like the look of brown leaves in the yard, you can rake them into piles around trees and shrubs and use them to outline garden areas. You can also use them as mulch and put them in compost piles.

And then next year, you may be lucky enough to see many more beautiful butterflies and bees gracing your personal and neighboring natural areas!

Maria de Bruyn, a medical anthropologist and wildlife photographer, is a member of the Chapel Hill Bird Club, Audubon Society and Chapel Hill Town Tree Committee, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.

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