The Advantages of a "Messy" Lawn and Garden

Fallen Leaves

We typically reach for the garden shears and rakes in the fall to "clean" up our lawns and gardens before the winter weather moves in. Many of us have vivid memories from our childhood of jumping into piles of raked leaves or hosting big bonfires with fall plant debris. It's become commonplace to simply want to get rid of leaves.

However, the problem with this annual fall "cleanup" ritual is that it can have significant environmental consequences - especially for our declining insect populations!

  • Many bees, butterflies, beetles, and amphibians use dead plant stems, leaf piles, and other summer debris to build winter homes and insulation. Fall cleanup often kills the creatures that overwinter in or underneath the leaves and creates a barren landscape for birds and other animals that forage in the leaf litter when food supplies are sparse. 
  • Decomposing organic materials increases methane levels and contributes to climate change. As organic matter attempts to decompose, methane is created in the absence of sufficient oxygen in landfills. Methane is 25x more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than C02! Allowing leaves to decompose in your yard or compost pile with sufficient oxygen reduces the amount of methane produced. 

Kid playing in fall leaves

Re-think Fall "Cleanup"  

We understand tolerance and aesthetic preferences vary from person to person. So, if you aren't quite ready to go 100% au naturel this fall, then start with just a few of the following ecosystem boosting recommendations—we think you'll be surprised just how beautiful a "messy" lawn and garden can be.

1. Leave the Leaves  

Raking leaves is the lawn and garden task most synonymous with autumn in many areas of the country. But if you simply leave the leaves where they fall in your garden plots, you:

  • Provide your lawn and garden with a protective blanket in the winter;
  • Enrich your soil with inorganic compounds like nitrogen and phosphorus as the plant matter decomposes;
  • Protect insects and other animals that rely on the leaf litter for survival;
  • And reduce your environmental impact by keeping the rich organic matter out  of the landfill

Leave the Leaves

2. Create a Brush Pile  

Brush piles can shelter birds and small mammals in the winter from predators and harsh weather.

Rather than sending dead branches and debris to the landfill, create a few small brush piles. Lay down the larger branches first to make the pile's foundation, then build up in layers with smaller branches and leaves. Just remember not to pack the pile too tightly and leave some open spaces to allow critters to come and go.

Brush piles are easy to hide out of sight if you'd prefer, but placing them in a spot visible from a window makes for excellent winter wildlife viewing!

3. Don't Overdue it with the Clippers 

Many insects and native bees overwinter inside the hollow stems of plants and grasses, and many birds feed on the seeds of wildflowers all winter long. Try to leave as many stems and plants intact over the winter to support the local wildlife. Allow the gorgeous dried flower heads to stay standing in your garden!

Pro Tip: If the sight of brown stems makes you cringe, start viewing them as cozy winter nests for wildlife. 

Brown Fallen Leaves

4. Start Composting  

Fall is the perfect time of year to start a compost pile! The readily available mix of leaves (brown material) and dead plants and grass clippings (green material) helps produce compost quickly.

You'll also have a place for your food scraps! Not only will tossing food scraps into a compost help reduce your environmental impact by keeping your food waste out of the landfill, but it'll also reduce the rotting food smells from the garbage!

Compost piles turn those old food scraps and yard waste into a gardener's black gold. Add this black gold to your garden to help improve soil structure, reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, attract beneficial invertebrates such as earthworms, and aid in microbial activities.

There are many types of composting, some of which can be done indoors, so don't let apartment living deter you!

Compost Pile

5. Re-think Aesthetic Beauty  

Last but certainly not least, we need to try to shift what we find aesthetically beautiful. There is so much beauty (and life) hidden in the winter garden's brown, dried, shriveled stems and flowers! Allowing our lawns and gardens to be beautifully messy is a great way to support native biodiversity. 

Winter Plant

It's Spring! Now What?  

The sun is shining, and you're ready to start planning your spring planting schedule. You may be tempted to run out and tidy everything up that you let remain last fall. After all, you've been waiting all winter. But try to allow a portion of the mess to stay, at least until temps rise to a consistent 55°F/13°C; this allows many hibernating insects, including mason bees, time to emerge and begin foraging. 

Spring Flowers

Rethinking fall cleanup is a win-win situation. You not only reduce your impact by not sending organic materials to our landfills, but you also enrich your soil without chemicals, all the while laying out a winter welcome mat for local wildlife.

Many of the benefits from this natural approach will be hard to see! And, while it may be difficult to observe the positive ecological impact you are making, trust us, you'll be making a huge difference!