Why Leaf Piles Make Me Sad

Leaf pile

I’m keeping my leaves!

Morning light slants, setting heaps of golden leaves afire. It’s so lovely.

As I bike by, families are outside raking, making great piles for small offspring to leap into. There are peals of laughter amidst flying leaves. American Beauty portraits are taken of toddlers. Minnesota is celebrating her seasons .

Why am I sad?

It’s not existential angst, in spite of the fleeting nature of this glorious moment. It’s not that winter is coming, although that is sobering enough .

It’s that all those piles are going into bags. Lined up on front lawns, standing in phalanxes at the end of every drive, all of them are headed for the cities’ compost sites. That’s what is making me so sad.

Those bags are a symptom of our disconnect from natural cycles. Trees grow leaves; habitat and food for myriad life forms. Those leaves are supposed to fall and their nutrients return to the earth below that tree. The inhabitants of that leafy canopy actually need to stay near to their shelter and food source for survival.

Nature takes care of itself best when it has a rich interconnected web of life cycles. Called plant guilds in permaculture terms, each supports the other with habitat, forage, pollination, pest predation, nutrients and moisture retention .

Swept clean of all diversity, lawns do none of these things. They are monocultures. They break the cycle of nutrients. Lawns leave our trees bereft of their companion plants and beneficial insects. The trees suffer. Pollinators starve. Our entire ecosystem is impoverished for the sake of nothing but grass, a suburban icon of emptiness.

Is it any wonder we’ve lost 50% of our wildlife worldwide in the last forty years ?

This female polyphemus moth, newly emerged from the leaf litter near our woodpile, is displaying her blue"eyes".

This female polyphemus moth, newly emerged from the leaf litter near our woodpile, is defensively displaying her blue “eyes”.

Many of you don’t know that I came to pollinator activism through raising butterflies and moths. Some of Minnesota’s most beautiful creatures spend the first half of their lives in our trees’ canopies. At summer’s end they wrap themselves in a silken blanket, curled and camouflaged in a leaf. Then they fall to the ground along with all those other leaves, hidden, to sleep the winter and emerge in the early summer to begin their cycle anew.

That is, if they’re not mulched and sent to the compost site first.

Luna moths, those fairy emissaries of the night with their pale green glowing wings, are one beautiful species that overwinters in the leaf litter below their food source, the birch or black walnut.

Another is the polyphemus, also of the grand silkworm family. Feeding on maple and red oak, they used to be common. With gorgeous tawny gold wings four and half inches across, they are only a little smaller than their cousins, the giant Cecropias.

Polyphemus are impossibly cute with great feathery antennae and furry faces. This last phase of their life is solely for reproduction. They have no mouth parts, subsisting instead on the energy stored in their plump furry bodies from that previous year’s summer spent quietly munching as caterpillars high in the tree canopy. The great blue eyes on their wings are intended to frighten predators, and are their only defense.

Males have magnificent feathery antennae,.just look at that face!

Just look at that face! Males have magnificent feathery antennae used to scent the females’ pheromones.

Unfortunately, big blue eyes are no defense against mulching.

Rake or blow, but please,  leave those leaves in your yard. The less grass the better! Create ever expanding islands of mixed shrubs, plants, and ground covers around your trees and perimeters. Mimic the layers of a forest or meadow in form and function. Shrink the grass. Grow your plant guilds. There are so many living reasons to do so.

If I hadn’t stopped bagging my leaves I would never have witnessed wild Polyphemus emerging in my own yard .

You may have seen me last weekend with a borrowed louder-than-bombs fume spewing leaf blower, heaping leaves onto the garden beds and the shrubby perimeters. I’d rather rake than blow, but the quart of fuel it burns is less than I’d use for repeated trips to physical therapy for a bad rotator cuff.  Next year, I’m going to have even less grass, and more cycles of life will be connected vertically, from treetop to soil. I may never have to borrow that louder-than-bombs-blower again.

Night of The Polyphemus! Saturnid moths, including Polyphemus, Cecropias, and Lunas, fly at dusk . Our guests call it a Butterfly Release Party, which is not entirely accurate, but the magic is there!

Night of The Polyphemus! Saturnid moths including lunas, polyphemus , and cecropias, make their first flight after dusk. Our guests call it a Butterfly Release Party, not entirely accurate, but the magic is there!

It’s because I’m keeping my leaves that right around Midsummer’s Eve, we get to host our own yearly Night of the Polyphemus Butterfly Release Party. Some of the guests are likely to be wild. You’re invited, too. It’ll be magical.

Bee Swell!




Worldwide Integrated Assessment

The Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (WIA) has examined over 800 scientific studies spanning the last five years, including industry sponsored ones. It is the single most comprehensive study of neonics ever undertaken, is peer reviewed, and published as free access so that the findings and the source material can be thoroughly examined by others.

Great Pollinator Project

A project of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and the Greenbelt Native Plant Center Greenbelt Native Plant Center in collaboration with the Great Sunflower Project in San Francisco.

Bee Squad

Inspired by Dr. Marla Spivak at the U of MN Bee Lab, the Bee Squad helps beekeepers and the community in the Twin Cities area foster healthy bee populations and pollinator landscapes through education and hands-on mentorship.

The Xerces Society » Pollinator Conservation

Information on the biology and conservation of native bees, provided by the XercesSociety for Invertebrate Conservation.

Project Wild

A wildlife-focused conservation education program for K-12 educators and their students.