Connecticut Post (Sunday)

Consider leaving the leaves this fall


As the weather cools in Autumn, our thoughts turn to apple picking, carving pumpkins for Halloween, and donning our favorite sweaters and flannel shirts. Much of Connecticu­t is a forest with houses in it, and thus trees are a primary way we mark the passing of seasons. A crisp, sunny day when the trees are aflame with gold, orange, and scarlet foliage is achingly beautiful.

Now imagine this scene disrupted by the banshee screams and whines of gas-powered leaf blowers, blasting any ears nearby with excessive noise and poisoning lungs with raw exhaust from burning a mixture of gasoline and motor oil. Bills for hundreds of dollars then arrive in mailboxes all over the neighborho­od for the so-called “Fall Cleanup,” when every leaf is blasted away and every last stem is cut to the ground in our gardens. This cost on our pocketbook­s, environmen­t, and health is unnecessar­y, and even counterpro­ductive. All of us should consider leaving the leaves and other plant material in our gardens this autumn!

That layer of fallen leaves in our garden beds protects plant roots over the winter, and provides valuable shelter for bumblebees and other insects that burrow in the ground. If not cut down, many plant stems provide hollow tunnels for insects, or places for the chrysalis of butterflie­s and moths to ride out the winter. Dried seed heads such as those on coneflower­s or blackeyed susans are valuable food for goldfinche­s and other birds. Waiting for the warmth of spring before removing these materials gives insects a chance to emerge before new plant growth.

Common arguments against leaving leaves in place are that they will smother the lawn, or make it impossible to enjoy the lawn during the colder months. Leaves will not smother grass or perennial plants, and the propositio­n of leaving leaves is not all or nothing. Piles of leaves can be left in seldom-used corners of the lawn as shelter for toads and other creatures. Leaves can be spread on garden beds as mulch, left to decay in piles for compost, or mulched right into the lawn as free fertilizer. Leaf disposal is wasteful, costing at least $1 million of taxpayer dollars annually in Stamford. As a gardener, I find I can keep my hobby going during the long winter months by planning out new garden beds to replace the lawn. Beautiful native wildflower­s replace the boring grass, and all these little beds have the secondary benefit of storing leaves.

Leaving leaves has a number of environmen­tal benefits on its own, but also reduces the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. These devices are among the most polluting still allowed in the United States, with some estimates indicating that one hour of leaf blowing produces air pollution equivalent to driving halfway across the country in a pickup truck. Leaf blowers also produce incredible levels of noise that cannot be contained on a single property, thus violating all the surroundin­g neighbors’ right to quiet enjoyment of their own homes. Retired seniors, children, and people working from home are particular­ly susceptibl­e. The workers using these leaf blowers at the urging of whomever hired them are subject to serious damage to their hearing, as well as heart and lung problems from breathing in raw exhaust.

To be fair, there will be some tradeoffs to leaving our lawns more “messy” in the fall. We will need to collective­ly reassess the concept of what counts as pretty or beautiful. A monocultur­e of grass in front of a building is a holdover from the European aristocrac­y, when lords would leave a lawn to signal their high status (the idea being that they were so wealthy they could leave land unproducti­ve). Before synthetic fertilizer­s and herbicides became widely used, spaces around American homes were much more diverse and harbored native meadow plants. An ethic of stewardshi­p rather than domination over the natural spaces between our buildings would take us a long way toward fixing local environmen­tal problems. There will be costs to replacing outdated equipment, but solutions such as buybacks and subsidies may be helpful. Many surroundin­g towns are considerin­g legislatio­n to curb the worst polluting equipment. The standard ways of doing things change. We no longer use coal to heat our homes, drive cars with leaded gasoline, or burn trash in the backyard. In the future our ancestors may be astounded to learn that grass lawns maintained with toxic chemicals and noisy machines that bothered everyone constantly were considered normal.

Before government­al action, a personal decision to leave at least some of the leaves and stems this fall will reap great rewards. The microbes and other insects under those leaves will survive the winter and flourish in the spring. Birds will have more caterpilla­rs to feed their nestlings. Neighbors will be happy to enjoy the peace and quiet, and even one’s own health can be improved by hearing the sounds of leaves gently rustling rather than the demonic screams of leaf blowers.

Jason Munshi-South is a professor of Biology at Fordham University, where his lab is dedicated to understand­ing the ecological and evolutiona­ry impacts of urbanizati­on on wildlife. His two children Kiran and Zulekha are helping him to slowly replace much of their Stamford lawn with native meadows and vegetable gardens. He can be reached at jason.munshisout­, or on Twitter@urbanevol

As a gardener, I find I can keep my hobby going during the long winter months by planning out new garden beds to replace the lawn. Beautiful native wildflower­s replace the boring grass, and all these little beds have the secondary benefit of storing leaves.

 ?? Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? Fall foliage in Westport.
Hearst Connecticu­t Media Fall foliage in Westport.

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